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Community Health vs Public Health: What’s the Difference?

Mar 7, 2023
Reviewed by Jannelle Sokolowich (Ph.D., MSN, RN), Academic Vice President and Dean, Leavitt School of Health.

Public health and community health professionals play a crucial role in the healthcare industry as they work to ensure that the general population has access to high-quality healthcare services. Public health and community health professionals share the goal of improving health outcomes of communities. Both fields have an interest in solving health disparities and increasing access to healthcare services, but the approaches they take differ.

The healthcare industry is growing at an unprecedented rate, with an increasing demand for healthcare professionals. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that healthcare employment is projected to grow by 15% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all careers in the country. This growth is driven by an aging population and increasing demand for healthcare services. The healthcare industry is expected to add around 2.4 million new jobs over the course of the decade, providing incoming professionals with excellent job options and security. As the industry expands, so does the need for healthcare administrators who can create effective healthcare plans and awareness campaigns.  

While public health and community health professionals may not work with patients directly, they contribute significantly to the healthcare industry by addressing the root causes of health issues such as social, economic, and environmental factors result in poor health outcomes. They also work to design interventions to address these issues. 

Before deciding on a career path in healthcare administration, it’s important that you also understand the differences between public health and community health. 

Public health focuses on protecting and improving the health of communities through disease prevention, health improvement, advocacy, and policy development. Professionals in this field work to ensure that populations have access to clean food and water, vaccines, and other preventative medicine. 

Community health, on the other hand, focuses on the factors that affect a population’s health. Community health professionals are focused on reducing health disparities and encouraging healthy behaviors through education programs. The field of community health also addresses social determinants of health such as access to education, employment, and affordable housing. Keep reading to learn which career path is a better choice for you.

Public Health

Public health focuses on nurturing and protecting the health of people and communities. This multidisciplinary field combines knowledge and skills from various health sciences, such as epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, and health policy.

Public health professionals work to prevent the spread of illness in a particular population, which can be as small as a single neighborhood or as large as an entire country. They monitor and analyze data on the prevalence of diseases to identify trends and outbreaks. They also work to identify the risk factors associated with specific diseases and design interventions to prevent their spread. 

Public health professionals take a preventive approach to healthcare, as they help ensure that a population has access to clean food and water, as well as safe housing and working conditions. They design informational campaigns to teach the public about health and wellness, including the importance of regular exercise, healthy eating habits, and proper hygiene practices.

Another aim of the public health field is to understand the spread of disease in specific populations, particularly after a health-related outbreak. This involves identifying the source of an outbreak, tracking the spread of the disease, and designing interventions to prevent its recurrence. 

Public health professionals typically work in government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state health departments, or international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). These professionals work in a variety of settings, including local and state health departments, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and international organizations. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, nurses, and social workers to develop and implement public health systems that address a population’s health needs.  

Community Health

Community health focuses on the overall health and well-being of a specific community. This approach to healthcare recognizes that health is not just the absence of disease but a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Community health professionals work towards identifying and addressing the underlying social, economic, and environmental factors that affect the health of a community.

Community health professionals help to reduce health gaps caused by historical and systematic inequitable responses to things like poor urban planning, poverty, and unaffordable healthcare. They study the living conditions and resources available to different populations across the country, and work to help create greater access to fair and affordable healthcare. They work with communities to identify and address the root causes of poor health outcomes. For example, they may work to improve access to healthy food options in food deserts or design programs that provide safe spaces for physical activity in communities without access to parks or recreational facilities.

In addition to addressing the root causes of poor health outcomes, community health professionals also build health education programs to reach communities and encourage healthy behaviors. They educate individuals and groups about healthy lifestyle choices, including good nutrition, physical activity, and regular health screenings. They also work to raise awareness about specific health issues such as the risks associated with smoking or the importance of getting vaccinated.

These professionals work in a variety of settings ranging from local health departments and community clinics to schools and nonprofit organizations. They also may collaborate with other healthcare professionals such as physicians, nurses, and social workers to ensure that individuals and communities have access to high-quality healthcare services. 

Careers in Community Health and Public Health

If you are interested in pursuing a career in community health or public health, there’s a wide range of career options for you to choose from, in addition to those of health educator or public health nurse. Graduates with healthcare experience, an advanced education, and a desire to help others live healthy lives can find fulfilling and challenging roles in both fields.

Those who prefer the scientific aspects of public health can choose from many careers. Epidemiologists, for example, are responsible for investigating patterns and causes of disease and injury in populations. They analyze data to identify the risk factors associated with specific diseases and design ways to prevent their spread. Public health engineers work to ensure that communities have access to clean water and air, safe food, and proper sanitation. Biostatisticians use statistical methods to design research studies and analyze data related to public health issues.

There are also many opportunities for those interested in policy development, advocacy, management, or legislation. Medical writers, for example, create written materials related to public health issues, including educational documents for patients, scientific articles for medical journals, and policy briefs for government agencies. Health promotion program coordinators build and implement public health programs to address specific health issues such as smoking or obesity prevention. Hospital administrators manage the operations of healthcare facilities, such as hospitals or clinics, to ensure that they are providing high-quality healthcare services to patients.

Advancing Your Healthcare Career

Earning an advanced degree is essential for those who want to succeed in public health and community health roles. An advanced degree provides healthcare administrators with the necessary knowledge and skills to develop and implement effective healthcare programs. It also helps professionals stay current on new healthcare trends, research, and technologies. For those that don’t already hold a relevant degree, starting with a bachelor’s degree in healthcare management is an excellent first step.

For those with experience in the healthcare field who already hold a bachelor’s degree and are looking to advance their career, earning an MBA in healthcare management from WGU is an excellent option. This program offers a comprehensive education that combines business skills with healthcare industry knowledge. With a focus on practical skills. Students learn about topics such as healthcare finance, healthcare law and ethics, and healthcare operations management, all of which are directly relevant to the day-to-day operations of healthcare organizations. Additionally, the program includes a capstone project, where students can apply their knowledge and skills to real-world problems in the healthcare industry.

One of the key strengths of WGU’s degree programs is their flexibility. WGU's online learning model allows you to complete your coursework at your own pace, making it easier to balance work and family obligations. Additionally, our programs’ competency-based approach allows you to move quickly through material you already know by demonstrating mastery, potentially speeding up your degree to save time and money.

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