What’s the difference between an MSW and MPH?

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Social workers often play a pivotal role in supporting broad health goals in a community. In some cases, this may occur through advocacy and awareness programs. In others, social workers may lead community groups providing a vital service or offering counseling to individuals facing difficulties in some form. As such, social workers often end up getting involved in the broad public health concerns surrounding them.

This cross-disciplinary involvement can lead to confusion for those wishing to advance their careers. It can be easy to wonder if one should pursue an advanced degree in social work or in public health if drawn to these types of larger issues, and it is important to understand the relationship between social work and public health as well as the difference between the degree types.

Where social work and public health intersect

In simplest terms, social workers treat individuals and interact directly with them while working to address larger issues that may impact the health and well-being of those in the community. Public health professionals, on the other hand, focus more extensively on identifying conditions that impact groups and establish strategies to counter risks and promote health. These two disciplines are not mutually exclusive, something that was highlighted in a recent Social Work Today report discussing the role of climate change on social work practice.

According to the news source, many social workers serving communities in states such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and other regions frequently affected by hurricanes find themselves in a situation in which the extreme weather that many believe can be attributed to climate change is leading to extra strain on the individuals and communities they serve.

The report explained that extreme weather — be it in the form of hurricanes or other natural disasters — can often have an outsized impact on the at-risk populations that social workers serve. As public awareness about these issues is often lacking, it can be difficult to properly advocate for these individuals and position them to get the help needed to recover or prevent future problems. As such, social workers need to get involved in the larger public health conversations surrounding climate change to meet the day-to-day demands of the individuals and communities they work with.

Social workers clearly play a role in public health initiatives, but the other skills involved in the profession — counseling, advocacy, etc. — stand apart. This is where the differences between the degrees become clear.

The Master of Public Health at a glance

Public health is a huge industry spanning a wide range of disciplines. Any profession aimed at the overarching health issues that impact communities, population groups, or even the world falls under the realm of public health. Professionals in the field can work in everything from statistical analysis to health care management. However, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health narrows the discipline down to three key points of emphasis:

Personal — Public health is meant to promote healthy lifestyles and emphasize preventive measures that help individuals improve their well-being.

Global — Public health looks at large-scale issues, such as infectious diseases, environmental problems, or implications of violence to identify needs and establish strategies to address them.

Measurable — Population health programs have evolved to the point that the discipline is increasingly measurable in the form of statistical analysis and clear returns that come from putting an emphasis on major health issues that affect large groups of people.

Degree programs, therefore, emphasize training individuals in skills pertaining to environmental and community health, responding to natural disasters, dealing with disparities in health across population groups, and responding to epidemics.

Key areas of study, according to the ASPPH, include:

  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Health policy and management
  • Maternal and child health
  • Health promotion and communication
  • Minority health
  • Behavioral and social science

What to expect from an MSW program

An MSW program will emphasize key areas of study that are common among medical professions, but then extend to specific social issues that are vital to treatment in the field. This can include study of clinical practice, ethics, legal issues surrounding social work, substance abuse counseling, children and family counseling, and similar disciplines.

Social workers can drive public health gains

While the focus on community health and aim to promote well-being are evident across both disciplines, they pursue those goals in different ways. A social worker may have expertise in understanding health care delivery systems and behavioral psychology, but those skills will be used differently than they would be in a typical public health role.

Where a public health professional will usually focus on looking at issues from the top down and working to solve them, the social worker helps people deal with health problems and navigate both care and social systems. In many cases, the two groups can actually benefit from working with one another. In fact, the paper “A Social Work Approach to Policy: Implications of Population Health,” published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that social workers can function as allies for the public health sector as both groups work to deal with population health disparities.

Which is right for you?
Ultimately, you’ll have to answer this question for yourself. An MPH may be a great fit if you are concerned with solving health problems and helping the public, but aren’t interested in the day-to-day interpersonal care of treating patients. If you want to help individuals and promote gains in the community, however, pursuing an MSW may be best for you. This is particularly true if you are interested in clinical therapy, as an MSW is needed for licensure in many states.

If you pursue an MPH, you can enter a broad and exciting field. If you pursue an MSW, you’ll not only get a chance to impact people’s lives for the better at the micro level, but can also play a role in public health initiatives and potentially steer your career in that direction over time. The Regis College online MSW program is particularly noteworthy if you want to get started in counseling. Contact us today to learn more.


Recommended Readings:

What is an MSW degree?

Social work or psychology: Which master’s degree is right for you?



Climate Change and Public Health: How Social Workers Can Advocate for Environmental Justice by Social Work Today

Discover: What is Public Health by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health

A Social Work Approach to Policy: Implications for Population Health from the American Journal of Public Health