Public health is all about improving the health of the general population. This can be by preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting ways to keep healthy. The remit of public health ranges from supporting individuals to dealing with wider issues that impact local communities and whole populations.
Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, an early twentieth century public health expert, called public health both a "science and art". His comment reflects the multidisciplinary nature of the field, which needs a range of specialists ranging from biostatisticians to economists, and from microbiologists to sociologists.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Public Health has ever been more important in people’s lives. The launch of the new UK Health Security Agency - UKHSA - in October 2021 is now an integral part of the public health system and plays crucial role in protecting the public, and in planning and responding to health threats in the future.
What is public health?
Public health includes all aspects of physical, mental, and social wellbeing and covers a wide range of issues. There are many public health initiatives in the UK and elsewhere in the world. These include encouraging people to breastfeed, have their vaccinations, eat fruit and vegetables, exercise frequently, and wash their hands regularly.
In many cases, public health is about stopping health problems before they begin. For example, providing free condoms can prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and vaccinations can prevent certain illnesses from spreading.
Health Education England refer to four main domains of public health:
- Health protection – helping people to keep safe from risk for example, viruses, environmental or biological threats, food poisoning or radiation
- Health improvement – improving people’s health by encouraging them to quit smoking or lose weight or by having health and wellbeing initiatives offered and accessible within local communities
- Healthcare public health – ensuring health services are run efficiently and are accessible to all
- Academic Public Health – aims to build the evidence base on which all public health activities is based
You can view an overview of all 4 domains of public health in these short 1 minute videos produced by Health Education England.
Health Careers - what is public health?
Faculty of Public Health - membership organisation for public health workers
What job roles are available in public health?
Due to the multidisciplinary nature of public health, there are a diverse range of roles in this area.
The Health Careers website lists a number of different roles where public health is considered to be the main part of the role. These include:
- public health academics
- public health consultants and specialists
- directors of public health (who lead the public health in a local area or a defined area of public health)
- environmental health professionals (noise and environmental pollution, food safety and hygiene, workplace health, housing standards, public health threats)
- health trainers (helping individuals and communities to achieve health goals)
- public health nurses or midwives who have taken additional qualifications in areas such as sexual health, infection control or health protection (includes roles such as school nurse, occupational health nurse and health visitor)
- public health practitioners who support the health and wellbeing of individuals, groups, and communities as part of their role
- public health knowledge professionals (e.g. involved the management of data – such as in a specialist librarian or health evidence role)
- public health intelligence professionals (e.g. involved in the analysis of data – such as by an epidemiologist who may study patterns of disease within a population, data scientist or data analyst role)
- support worker roles (such as in substance misuse, smoking cessation, sexual health roles)
Health Careers - find out more about the core public health workforce
Health Careers - find out more about public health
What are the benefits of working in public health?
The main benefit is knowing that you’re making a difference to people’s health, whether on an individual level, with a particular group of people, or to a wider population. You will develop knowledge in an area of health and wellbeing and play a key role in preventing ill health and/or promoting ways to stay healthy.
Roles in this area could allow you to gain a range of skills, which will differ depending on the exact role. Skills could range from effective communication and leadership to analytical skills from interpreting data and existing research. The skills for health career framework describe the different levels of skills and knowledge across the public health workforce.
Skills for Health Career Framework
What are the entry requirements for roles in public health?
For some roles such as specialist midwives and nurse roles, you would require additional training in addition to a nursing or midwifery qualifying degree. On the other hand, for a role such as a public health practitioner (which may cover a wide range of job titles from support worker and coordinator roles, through to advanced practitioner positions), there may be differing entry requirements depending on the level of the role.
For more analytical roles, such as statisticians and public health intelligence analysts, a relevant degree is an advantage; analytical courses such as maths, statistics, some social sciences courses, and geography are good examples of these. The NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme has a health informatics strand, which is useful for those wanting to work with data.
If you’re more interested in a role in public health management, you will need to gain experience in management or consider a masters qualification in public health. The NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme has a general management specialty, although this could take you in many different
managerial directions for example, managing primary care or mental health services or managing a service area within an acute NHS hospital or community trust or ambulance service.
The Graduates into Health programme seeks to recruit hard to fill digital, data and technology roles such as information management professionals, cyber and security analysts, software development, IT and project management roles. Since the scheme is very broad, you may be able to focus your training around an aspect of public health.
The Department of Health’s Health Policy Fast Track Scheme is as an opportunity to gain hands on experience of how health policy is developed and delivered by government and gain skills in health care policy and leadership. The scheme also integrates a postgraduate qualification in Health Policy as part of the training.
You may also consider specialty training in public health. Applicants for specialty training in public health come from a wide variety of backgrounds (eg nursing, research, teaching, environmental health, and medicine). Successful completion of training leads to being able to apply for roles as a Public Health Consultant
NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme
Graduates into Health
Health Policy fast track
Specialty training in public health
Health Careers - roles in public health including entry routes
Where can I look for jobs?
Roles in public health range across the public, private, and third sectors.
- higher education
- local and national government
- armed forces
- consultancy firms
- charities and social enterprises
British Medical Jobs
Health Careers - employers of public health staff
Civil Service Jobs
Applying for roles in the NHS and other healthcare providers
If you are you interested in applying for a role with the NHS or another healthcare provider, use our online guide to:
- understand where to search for vacancies
- prepare for an effective application which includes the importance of self-reflecting, researching your employer and understanding how you can best articulate your experience and motivation
- understand the recruitment processes for different roles and employers
Go to the online guide
How do I increase my chances of success during the recruitment process?
A clear understanding of the sector and the latest developments will help you to impress a recruiter during the recruitment process. Use the following resources to develop your knowledge and keep up to date with the latest initiatives.
The UK Health Security Agency is a government agency sponsored by the Department of Health and Social Care. Its aims include to protect and improve the country’s health and wellbeing as well as reduce health inequalities.
UK Health Security Agency
Faculty of Public Health
Royal College of Nursing has a section on public health with separate webpages on each related area of public health. For example, you can find further information on preventative measures (for example, obesity and smoking), protective measures (such as immunisation and sexual health), and promotional tools (including occupational health and physical health).
Royal College of Nursing - overview of public health
BBC - public health news
Royal Society for Public Health - an independent health education charity
Recent developments in public health
A brand-new organisation – the UK Health security Agency (UKHSA) became fully operational as a government agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in October 2021. It combines the former health protection functions of Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace service. It brings together national public health science and response capabilities to protect against infectious diseases and external health threats.
UK Health Security Agency