Public health and general medical practitioners both seek to preserve, enrich, and save lives. It’s how they achieve this mission — and often the scope of their work — that diverges. So what’s the difference?
Public health practitioners vs. generalists at a glance
While their missions are similar, there’s a dramatic difference in the work that public health and general medical practitioners do.
Public health practitioners tend to work on the macro level, studying and analyzing the health of community populations, whereas general medical practitioners (also known as generalists or GPs) focus on individual ailments.
Because of the broad scope of work involved, public health practitioners often have a greater role in helping with research and policy than GPs do. The work public health practitioners do in the community or in the health care industry often goes a long way toward informing the methods and strategies GPs employ when treating individual patients.
Another major difference between the two professions is the time and cost involved in earning the requisite credentials. Because a generalist is a licensed physician, students often need to devote more than a decade to training — including pre-med work, medical school, and residency requirements.
By contrast, a public health practitioner can practice with only a master’s degree, such as a Master of Public Health, which can typically be completed in as few as two years following your undergraduate studies. In addition to allowing you to practice more quickly, the time saved in earning your degree can amount to tens of thousands of dollars saved on tuition and fees.
What does a public health practitioner do in the community?
Public health practitioners are medical specialists who study the spread of disease and other threats to public health. They help bridge the gap between research and treatment, looking at topics as varied as obesity, smoking, the outbreak of infectious diseases, environmental pollution, climate change, and more.
Public health practitioners examine the health of large populations and groups. They are often tasked with looking at social, environmental, and occupational hazards to health and communicating information about these threats to the public.
Public health encompasses a variety of different specializations. The duties, as well as the educational and training requirements, may vary depending on the role. Many public health practitioner positions are research-based and involve working with private and government agencies to gather actionable insights from data.
What does a general medical practitioner do?
General medical practitioners are trained physicians who don’t work in a specialized field. They are active in a number of different areas of medicine and can be found working in hospitals, clinics, as part of a shared medical practice, or running their own practice. GPs typically are a part of large group practice or health maintenance organization.
GPs can serve a variety of functions and work in many different settings. With their broad skill set, GPs are a first point of contact for patients seeking treatment. Most of the ailments a general practitioner will diagnose and treat daily are relatively mild: aches and pains, minor injuries, and common diseases and infections. A GP’s work is conducted on a one-on-one, patient-by-patient basis.
Because they are licensed physicians, generalists typically have to complete more than a decade of schooling and training. Following their pre-med work, they typically must complete a four-year medical school program followed by a three-year residency before they can venture out on their own.
Since public health practitioners can practice with just a master’s degree, many people hoping to pursue a career in health opt to earn a Master of Public Health to operate at the community level.
How can a Master of Public Health degree apply to a career in public health?
With an online Master of Public Health degree, a student can complete public health training in a relatively short time and often for less money than traditional GP training. Many positions within public health do not require the same kind of residency period before entering the workforce. For example, epidemiology requires an MPH but not related work experience or on-the-job training. Public health officials often are among the first to know about innovations and groundbreaking studies looking at health challenges affecting populations all over the world.
How does public health impact society at large?
What makes public health practitioners so vital is that their work can alter and improve society. Their research, along with their health and lifestyle recommendations, can help people live longer and healthier lives.
On the individual level, the work of public health practitioners can inform GPs in their diagnosis and treatment of diseases and health conditions. When there are natural disasters or infectious disease outbreaks, GPs and other medical professionals look to the guidance of public health practitioners. For example, epidemiologists may look at the spread of an infectious disease and map its patterns and means of transmission. This information then filters into general practice.
Public health officials have taken on an important role in dealing with the recent outbreaks of Zika in the southern U.S. as well as helping manage the health-related aftermath of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. On the broader level, the work of public health practitioners filters into nearly every aspect of society — both regulatory and economically.
For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, diabetes, and arthritis are responsible for 7 in 10 deaths in the U.S. each year, with treatment accounting for 86% of the nation’s health care costs. Many of these conditions are related to obesity.
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data brief — itself written by public health experts — 36% of U.S. adults are obese. While there have been some governmental efforts to help teach healthy eating habits and limit the obesity epidemic — including the New York City ban on sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces — much of the public health work to fight obesity has been driven by public health experts.
Public health initiatives related to obesity, smoking, underage pregnancy, and other conditions have seen widespread positive results. The most recent data published by the CDC outlines several examples, including:
- The rate of births among teens aged 15 to 19 decreased from 40 per 1,000 to 27 per 1,000 between 2009 and 2013.
- Cigarette smoking among U.S. adults dropped from 42% in 1965 to 15% in 2015.
Deciding between a general practice or public health career
Important factors when deciding between a general practice or public health career include:
- Patient interaction. If you are looking to interact directly with patients, you may want to pursue a career as a GP. However, if you want to impact communities at large, then a career as a public health practitioner is for you.
- Setting. Generalists tend to work in hospital or clinical settings, whereas public health practitioners work in more varied settings in more of a research and analysis capacity.
- Education requirements. Public health practitioners can get started much quicker than generalists, as the educational and on-the-job training requirements are significantly less strict than they are for GPs.
- Scope of work. As a public health practitioner, you’ll have the opportunity to make a difference at a broad scale, whereas the scope for generalists is much more personal.
Those looking to enter public health may find the path to a meaningful, exciting career closer than they think. An online Master of Public Health degree is a strong first step into this world.