Health services in Australia are provided by both the public and private sectors, with public hospitals owned and managed by the state and territory governments. Public health is all about promoting, preventing, controlling and protecting the health of the community through various means that are either free or affordable for the masses. While a doctor or medical practitioner will diagnose and treat an ailment, someone who works in other disciplines relating to public health will assist in the health of their communities via other scientific or managerial methods.
Often medical students/professionals possess transferable skills to pursue a career in public health. Broadly speaking, there are 5 main disciplines within the public health sector that a budding student or a medical professional looking for a change may consider – health policy and management, biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, and social and behavioural sciences. Below we examine each discipline to help determine which may be best suited to you.
Biostatistics is a discipline that refers to the application of statistical techniques to scientific research in health-related fields. These fields may include medicine, biology or public health. A biostatistician will assist with collecting, analysing and synthesising data that can determine the prevalence of health conditions, monitor the effectiveness of treatments, identify patterns that may inform future treatments, change the way we treat patients or ease the strain on overcrowded health systems. This is particularly useful as the world faces an ageing population and an increasing number of people who live with chronic diseases. Biostatistics also played a significant role in the assessment, planning and management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Epidemiology is another discipline that played a key role in the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Epidemiology refers to the field of medicine that works on the incidence, distribution and control of diseases – or in other words, determining where a disease originated, how it may have spread and the best method of treatment. Epidemiologists will also measure the impact of particular diseases and help advise or build public policies to prevent the beginnings of an outbreak or further spreading. During the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiologists were often the source of truth or even a spokesperson for ongoing lockdown updates.
Health policy and management
Health policy and management is the discipline relating to leadership management and administration of public health systems. In this line of work health policy advisors may create and implement strategies that set out health priorities such as providing solutions from immunisations to breastfeeding, creating smoke-free policies in workplaces or retail settings, or building health care programs in schools or educational facilities. Those in the health policy and management sector may also identify policy issues, advocate for new opportunities and provide strategic advice or recommendations on legal policies. A key component of policies generated by advisors is they often need to be cost-effective to provide equity and accessibility to systems that promote and help the general wellness and safety of a population.
Social and behavioural sciences
The social and behavioural sciences discipline studies cognitive, social and environmental drivers that influence health-related behaviours in humans. It can draw on a range of different disciplines including psychology, sociology, research methods and even statistics to create a holistic view to think critically about human health. Those in the social and behavioural sciences sector may help design effective healthcare approaches, promote health through programs or campaigns, influence policies relating to health, work in health service management or as a consultant who specialises in health.
Environmental health sciences
Environmental health works towards preventing disease, and assessing and controlling factors that are linked to the environment. This can be through physical, chemical, biological or social factors in the environment that can impact people’s health such as airborne dust, contaminated land or groundwater, air quality, asbestos waste or pollution incidents. Those working in the environmental health sciences sector will give advice on public health risks, help people gain access to scientific information about environmental public health, provide advice to local councils and oversee the clean-up of illegal drug labs or other chemical or pollution-based issues. In Australia, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has branches across all states and territories and is one of the most notable bodies that work with environmental health sciences.
While a background in the medical field is beneficial or even recommended for many of these disciplines, there are instances where it is not a requirement – the best course of action is to thoroughly research any specific courses that interest you for prerequisites. Whatever your experience though, understanding the occasionally subtle distances between the five main disciplines in public health can help you determine the best way to move forward on your education or career and set you on the path to success in the public health field.
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