Responding to a pandemic: which careers in public health play key roles?

If you’re interested in a career in public health, you’ll want to understand what really goes on behind the scenes of the response to a crisis like an infectious disease outbreak. When it comes to understanding and addressing health and safety risks to the community, public health professions have a role at each stage in the process. If you want to work in public health, are you clear on which role you’re best-suited to?

According to Deakin University Chair in Epidemiology, Professor Catherine Bennett, addressing a public health crisis can involve anything from analysing data and research, responding to an unexpected disease outbreak, or implementing intervention programs to address large-scale health issues within the community.

‘Public health can be about emerging insidious problems that can relate to communicable diseases such as COVID-19, or relate to health risks associated with environmental exposures, diet, obesity, and the problems associated with that,’ Prof. Bennett says.

When it comes to addressing a public health crisis, the role of a public health worker usually falls into one of two categories: prevention or response.

‘Work in public health is about prevention where you can – and protecting people from disease and injury. But it's also about responding when you suddenly see a surge in cases of unexpected outbreaks, or an increase in injuries.’

You may find that different types of public health professions can have similar job titles along the way, but each job will have varying responsibilities depending on whether it is more prevention or response focused.

Jobs on the front foot: public health prevention and intervention

Whether it’s a fast-moving infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19, or the slower, but deadly, obesity epidemic, the first stage in responding to a public health crisis is, where possible, preventing it in the first place.

Prevention-focused careers in public health centre around influencing policy affecting the health and safety of the wider community. A few job titles here include health promotion officer, public health practitioner and epidemiologist, with a strong focus on educating people and organisations on preventative measures that can help decrease the occurrence of a public health crisis.

Those working on preventing a public health crisis might conduct surveillance, monitoring, and analysis of health indicators and data pertaining to community health, or work in the field to actively reduce the risk of disease or injury through a role in outbreak response, contact tracing or the rollout of health promotion programs.

If you end up in this kind of public health career, you’ll likely collaborate with different teams, departments and groups of people to ensure health is integrated into policies in a range of areas that can also influence, for example, population health, public housing or education.

‘There can be roles at all levels, local government, state government, there can even be positions within organisations, integrating health and health policy,’ Prof. Bennett says.

‘It's very much about research linked to action, and influencing policy to ensure better health outcomes.’

Jobs on the frontline: responding to a public health crisis

It may be true that ‘prevention is better than cure’, but despite the best efforts of public health professionals, a crisis like COVID-19 can still strike. In these kinds of situations, are you inspired by the prospect of diving in and helping out?

Roles such as a public health practitioner or epidemiologist in the response stage are more focused on actively engaging with people to understand the distribution of disease across different population groups, or getting stuck into research to help make sense of unusual or little-understood disease risk factors in the community.

Your public health crisis response efforts could involve planning and rehearsing responses and outcomes to potential threats to public health, engaging with the community to help manage chronic conditions such as obesity, or addressing the causes of sudden and unexpected outbreaks of infectious disease.

‘It can be about bringing parties together – both the experts who might be the decision makers, or the policymakers – but it’s also very heavily based in working with the community,’ Prof. Bennett explains.

In the case of responding to a sudden infectious disease outbreak, for example, public health professionals might engage with newly infected individuals or their contacts as part of contact tracing, and actively implement measurements that aim to reduce the level of risk to the community.

Specialist careers in public health

Working as part of a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary field like public health crisis preparation or response means there are many different areas of specialisation available to explore.

You might choose to specialise in chronic disease, food science and nutrition, health policy and promotion, or disease protection and risk management. In each of these fields, you’ll use research to do work that affects real action and change in the community.

With a greater awareness of the importance of a skilled and specialised public health workforce, demand in this area is only increasing. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Australian public health industry has shown a recommitment to building capacity, Prof. Bennett says: ‘Not just in people numbers but in skill levels across our public health teams.’

‘We're seeing expansion of roles, opportunities and responsibilities with a smarter approach to public health practice and how we build resilient populations and workplace to help combat future pandemics, or whatever else gets thrown at us.’

This means having a postgraduate qualification in public health is more important than ever.

Of the Deakin postgraduate degrees, Prof. Bennett says: ‘We have experts working in obesity, infectious diseases, health equity, workplace health, health economics, climate related health, drug and alcohol, social inclusion – to name a few of the areas where students can find applied projects of interest.’

Want to improve the lives of millions with a career in public health? Discover your postgraduate study options.