What Is Public Health Research? Jobs and Career Outlook

A public health research specialist working on a computer.

Data dominates the modern health care industry. For example, Gartner Research found that organizations throughout the world are expected to spend a combined $3.9 trillion on information technology (IT) products and services in 2021. Gartner also reported that the health care sector expanded its IT spending by 4.8% in 2020, as a growing number of health care providers remained focused on building analytics solutions; optimizing health records; and expanding other digital capabilities, such as cloud storage and connected medical devices.

A similar trend is evident within the public health sector, as physicians and other stakeholders continue to develop cutting-edge clinical workflows and treatments. Not surprisingly, improving IT capabilities and infrastructure is crucial in addressing public health research and delivery.

There are numerous career paths available to health care professionals interested in moving into public health research, especially for individuals who’ve completed an advanced education, such as a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. Completing an online MPH can help prospective public health research specialists understand the field and develop the knowledge, skills, and competencies that can lay the groundwork for success.

What Is Public Health Research?

Public health research helps researchers understand the environmental, genetic, and social health determinants that influence population health. Research is crosscutting and disciplinary, and analyzes population samples including biological factors, biostatistics, epidemiology, and genetics. This allows researchers to identify characteristics that augment the prevalence of population health events, such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer.

Although public health research is conducted in various ways, including case-control studies, cross-cutting studies; cause-of-death registries (i.e., registries that list whether someone died from cancer, cardiovascular disease, or pneumonia, among other causes); and medical administrative databases, which data on individuals’ prior health appointments, medical procedures, diagnostic information, and past prescriptions are an invaluable source of big data.

Examples of Public Health Research

Early biostatisticians and epidemiologists were responsible for conducting the first data collection efforts centered on improving public health. For example, in 1854, London anesthesiologist John Snow performed groundbreaking studies centered on cholera to combat a local outbreak of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This work, which garnered him the title  “the father of epidemiology,” helped save the lives of many Londoners and provided the basis for future treatments and clinical processes related to the illness.

A number of key organizations had a hand in growing the field as well, most notably the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH was founded in 1887 as part of the now-defunct Marine Hospital Service, which preceded the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. Over the following decades, scientists and researchers at the NIH pioneered treatments for numerous conditions, including arthritis, cancer, and mental illnesses. Approximately 153 NIH employees and grant recipients have earned Nobel Prizes for their work. The NIH has since been joined by many other research institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO).

Public health researchers survey and analyze data to gain a better understanding of the factors, such as access to health care, obesity, and nicotine use, that influence a population’s health. For example, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health researchers monitored the nature of the outbreak to understand which factors increased patients’ risk of severe illness or death. The CDC later found that older adults, and adults diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, and chronic lung disease, were among those most vulnerable.

Exciting Public Health Research Jobs

Groups such as the NIH and the WHO employ and support thousands of public health researchers, scientists, and leaders. These individuals drive progress on multiple levels, working in labs, libraries, clinics, and conference rooms to advocate for important R&D initiatives aimed at improving public health. Medical scientists are among the most critical contributors. These professionals use their medical and scientific training to conduct research efforts designed to pinpoint new treatments. Epidemiologists — health care professionals responsible for studying disease in the field — are also essential to such efforts. Executive leaders and program managers play important roles as well, using managerial experience, clinical awareness, and leadership capabilities to develop and oversee public health research operations.

Public Health Researcher

Public health researchers collect and analyze data linked to population health trends. Sample job titles are epidemiologist, clinical research director, and director of applied research. Professionals within this field perform research using survey campaigns and data analytics, and their findings are used to improve public health policies and health education programs. According to April 2021 data from the compensation website PayScale, the median annual salary for public health researchers is around $60,900, although earners in the top 10th percentile report annual earnings of more than $114,000. Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job growth for public health researchers is projected to grow by 5% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than what’s projected for all other occupations.

Public Health Scientists

Public health scientists aim to promote health and prevent disease by examining medical data, performing tests on lab samples, and analyzing test results. Sample job titles are public health lab scientist, public health data scientist, and clinical lab scientist. The role of public health scientists is to assess and draw conclusions about a population’s health issues and hazards and report their findings to health care professionals and public health officials. According to May 2020 data from the BLS, the median annual salary for public health scientists working in scientific research and development was $99,020, although earners in the top 10th percentile reported annual salaries of more than $126,040. The BLS further projects that employment of public health scientists is projected to grow by 5% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than what’s projected for all other occupations.

Public Health Educator

Public health educators teach people about behaviors that promote health and wellness, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods, and exercising. Professionals who choose this path may also collect data about the populations or communities they serve to better understand common health conditions, so they can develop strategies and programs to improve them.

According to May 2020 data from the BLS, the median annual salary for public health educators was $42,000. Earners in the top 10th percentile reported annual earnings of more than $79,790. The BLS also reports that overall employment of public health educators is projected to grow by 13% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than what’s projected for all other occupations.

Entering the Field with a Public Health Degree

How can health care professionals looking to enter the public health research field secure these positions? Enrolling in an online Master of Public Health (MPH) degree program is a good start. Instructional tracks of this kind can help aspiring public health research leaders gain the experience and skills they need to succeed in this essential field.

Regis College provides an online MPH degree program that empowers students to enter the public health research field via a holistic, web-based curriculum that touches on key topics, such as biostatistics, epidemiology, and public health management.

Explore Regis College’s online Master of Public Health degree program today.

Recommended Readings

Understanding the Effects of Outdoor Air Pollution on Public Health

What Is Epidemiology?

8 Environmental Factors That Affect Health

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, People with Certain Medical Conditions

CDC Foundation, What Is Public Health?

Gartner, Forecast: Enterprise IT Spending for the Healthcare Provider Market, Worldwide, 2017-2023, Q419 Update

Gartner, Gartner Forecasts Worldwide IT Spending to Grow 6.2% in 2021

Houston Chronicle, “Job Description for Researcher in the Field of Public Health”National Institutes of Health

PayScale, Salary for Industry: Public Health Research

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Epidemiologists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers