A Spotlight on Public Health at UGA

By Hammad Khalid and Trang Nguyen

Whether as a practicing physician, medical researcher or hospital administrative worker, an understanding of public health practice is essential for success. The World Health Organization defines public health as “all organized measures to prevent disease, promote health and prolong life among the population as a whole.” Public health is an extremely broad field, with job prospects that may encompass health education, policy analysis or epidemiological research.

Promotion of a healthier population, which is public health’s primary purpose, is quintessential to creating a sustainable healthcare system because it provides economic and social benefits from increased productivity. Furthermore, public health and medicine are essentially two sides of the same coin; both are crucial in creating a well-functioning system of successful healthcare delivery to the population and the individual. Within the University of Georgia, the College of Public Health offers programs at the undergraduate and graduate level that will prepare students to engage in the field of public health.

At the undergraduate level, the College of Public Health offers a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health and a Bachelor of Science in Health Promotion. The B.S. degree in Environmental Health covers the basics of most of the core sciences, then allows students to pick an area of specialty. To give an idea of the different directions an area of specialty can take, some of the major elective classes students may take are “Environmental Issues in the Developing World” or “Environmental Biotechnology.” There is also the option of pursuing a Joint B.S. in Environmental Health and Biological Engineering. In the past, students that have graduated with a B.S. degree in Environmental Health from the University of Georgia have held positions as Health and Safety Officers, Ecological Risk Assessors and Environmental Scientists at organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The B.S. degree in Health Promotion allows students to choose between a Health Promotion or Health Services program. For their major electives, students may take classes in subject areas of Anthropology, Communication, Psychology and Global Health. These classes offer a more well-rounded perspective on of public health by educating students across various disciplines. For example, someone interested in studying how a patient’s mental state affects health could choose to take all their electives in Psychology. Upon the completion of their undergraduate degree, students have gone on to public health graduate schools as well as jobs in government agencies or health care organizations, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to B.S. degrees in Environmental Science and Health Promotion, the College of Public Health has minors in both subject areas.

Many students choose to pursue a graduate degree in public health, and the University of Georgia offers several of these programs. The College of Public Health offers a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) with concentrations in Disaster Management, Gerontology, Environmental Health Science, Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Health Policy and Management, and Health Promotion and Behavior. There are also graduate degree programs for a Master of Science in Biostatistics, Environmental Health, or Toxicology. Former students have been able to supplement their graduate degrees with certificates in Gerontology, Global Health, or Disaster Management.

UGA’s College of Public Health offers a multitude of options for both undergraduate and graduate students to pursue study abroad opportunities. The Center for Global Health within the College of Public Health offers a seven-week summer partnership program between UGA and the University of Haifa in Israel. Through this program, one can earn Health Policy and Management, Health Promotion and Behavior, and Global Health course credit as well as complete a Public Health Internship required for the Master’s in Public Health. The College of Public Health also offers a Maymester to Taiwan through which six Health Promotion and Behavior credits can be earned. In addition to the aforementioned places of travel, it is possible to arrange study abroad programs to Australia, Costa Rica and Croatia.

Obtaining an undergraduate or graduate degree in a discipline of public health can open a plethora of career opportunities in multiple fields. Many public health jobs require an undergraduate degree, and obtaining a graduate degree in public health provides one with a competitive edge over other professionals. Public health graduates can find work in both the public and private sectors. In the public sector, graduates can work in local, state, or federal health departments. The jobs available at health departments can range from policy analysts to epidemiologists. Additionally, those interested in working for a non-profit organization can find work in research or in health advocacy and policy for organizations like the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society or local non-profits. Other public health professionals can also work in the private sector for pharmaceutical companies or insurance companies. Still other public health professionals work for universities as professors and researchers.

Understanding principles of public health is becoming increasingly important for physicians —and all healthcare professionals—to operate more efficiently and communicate more effectively with not only patients but also the general public. Rather than focusing on diagnosis and treatment for individual patients, as medicine aims to do, public health emphasizes health promotion and disease prevention for the entire community. Public health is a diverse, rewarding and growing field to work in. Contrary to popular belief, public health professionals come from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests —journalists, researchers, administrators, environmentalists and attorneys all work to protect and preserve the health of the general population. Working towards improving the lives of others is a fulfilling occupation, and public health professionals can see the constructive ramifications of their work on a local, national and international level.