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Do You Need an MPH Degree to Become a Public Health Leader?

February 15, 2022

Leadership is a key component of change in public health because this discipline is so complex. A 2016 American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) article recommended a bold expansion of the scope and reach of public health encompassing “all factors that promote health and well-being, including those related to economic development, education, transportation, food, environment, and housing.” The authors called this modernization initiative Public Health 3.0, asserting that the key to achieving their stated goals would be strong public health leadership.

Public health leadership is necessary to address the varied social, environmental, and economic determinants of health at the macro level. Leaders forge partnerships outside of public health, scale successful interventions, apply a systems perspective to pressing public health challenges, and participate in policy development, implementation, and evaluation in public health-adjacent domains.

Public health leadership is so important because there is a tendency to focus on the health challenges people face day in and day out instead of the systemic issues underlying those problems or potential opportunities to leverage resources outside of public health. As the AJPH article points out, more public health professionals need to take up the mantle of leadership to increase and broaden the impact of public health work.

Becoming a public health leader requires hard work and advanced credentials—most commonly, a Master of Public Health (MPH). The graduate degree to be a public health leader is specifically designed to teach application skills, promote collaboration, and increase public health knowledge needed to address health challenges in populations through strategy, research, and systems thinking. The University of Tennessee’s Online MPH leadership program, in particular, emphasizes a socio-ecological systems approach for understanding and promoting optimal overall health and wellness in individuals, families, and communities.

This guide looks more closely at the importance of public health leadership, the challenges public health leaders face, and how public health master’s degree programs prepare them to make the broadest possible impact.

What Is a Public Health Leader?

Leaders in public health are more than just managers. They are changemakers, leveraging any and all resources to positively influence public health at the systems level. Public health leaders look at the big picture and take on some of the most complex public health problems, leading teams, managing large-scale initiatives, designing wide-reaching solutions, and thinking strategically about how to coordinate resources from sectors such as education, medicine, business, law, and government to meet public health needs.

Public health professionals tend to specialize in focused areas including community health education, disease prevention, environmental health, sustainable development, or health policy. They use a variety of skills to meet their day-to-day responsibilities and long-term goals. Leaders in public health approach community and population health challenges with a wide scope. They are coalition builders, social strategists, and politically astute problem solvers.

Open-mindedness and creativity are vital elements of success in public health leadership because public health leaders must be able to see potentially advantageous connections outside of the field. They understand that effective public health interventions need to be sustainable. This is achieved by being actively engaged in recruiting and training the next generation of public health leaders, and by developing initiatives, advocating for health policies and contributing to peer reviewed research.

Many public health leaders are not identified by titles such as director or administrator. They often work outside of traditional public health settings. The strategies and partnerships they foster to achieve the 10 Essential Public Health Services solidify their status as leaders. Two of the defining traits of both informal and formal public health leaders, as explained by Howard K. Koh in the Journal of Public Health, are the ability to “identify a set of common goals where none may be readily apparent” and to “unite potentially unwilling partners and align a diverse set of viewpoints, objectives, resources, and capabilities.”

Defining the Challenges Public Health Leaders Face

Public health leaders face challenges that extend beyond issues such as infectious disease control, obesity, maternal health, healthcare accessibility issues, mental health, or drug addiction. The scope of systemic public health problems can also extend beyond national borders. Effective leaders in the public health sphere recognize that most population health challenges stem from highly complex causes that impact society and individuals in a multitude of ways and require multifaceted, long-term solutions. They acknowledge the vast interconnected web of economic, political, and societal risk factors underlying public health issues as well as the larger consequences. They pursue additional training to help them respond to issues at the system level to find solutions that scale.

Leaders with a knack for focusing on the objective big picture still face challenges, however. For example, how does one communicate the enormous scale of the most pressing public health challenges populations face without eroding hope? Public health leaders must be transparent about hurdles related to health communication, outreach, and advocacy without giving potential collaborators or the public at large the impression that there are no effective solutions.

Because the solutions to long-term, global problems require society-wide participation, public health leaders must be comfortable working with government officials, economists, sociologists, doctors and nurses, community organizers, educators, private corporations, religious groups, and informal leaders at the local and state levels. This requires considering a wide array of perspectives, competing interests, and potential disagreements among stakeholders. Leaders have to find areas of consensus among the chaos so coordinated efforts can move forward.

To do all this, public health leaders must have skills related to not only competencies such as epidemiology and community health education but also organization management, people management, policy development, program planning, and strategy development. Building these skills requires leadership-specific training presented in the context of public health, such as that offered in the University of Tennessee’s Online Master of Public Health degree program.

Why Competent Leadership Is Crucial in Public Health

The importance of strong, multifaceted leadership has long been acknowledged in the public health sector. Even before the official professionalization of public health, public health reformers were more than just disease experts. They were leaders who worked to address the underlying social issues contributing to population health challenges and health disparities related to accessibility.

A 1988 Institute of Medicine report called for a wider range of competencies in public health leadership, asserting that “the future of public health requires leaders whose skills encompass a wide range of necessary characteristics, including technical competence in the substance of public health issues; managerial abilities; communication skills; knowledge of and skills in the public decision process, including its political dimensions; and the ability to marshall constituencies for effective action.”

The 2010 National Collaborating Centre for Determinants of Health (NCCDH) environmental scan found that leadership is necessary to effectively address the many social determinants of health and health equity.

Since then, the growing complexity of the public health field—fueled by factors such as globalization and inequality—has only increased the need for leadership in public health. According to Marian W. Wentworth, president and CEO of Management Sciences for Health, there is a renewed need for “Global organizations, national leaders, local health officials, and others to commit now to new policies, procedures, and investments to turn these hard lessons into a more effective, resilient, and responsive era of public health leadership” in the wake of COVID-19.

Leadership activities in the public health sphere take many forms. For example, leaders advocate for crucial changes at the policy level, serve as a powerful voice for vulnerable populations, build multidisciplinary coalitions, connect public health professionals with resources they might not otherwise be able to access, and source and analyze data to gain insights into the relationships between seemingly disparate public health issues.

To do all this and more, public health leaders need to be ready to face the challenges they’ll encounter. Unfortunately, many are not adequately prepared to step into formal and informal leadership roles. Numerous sources speak of an ongoing public health leadership gap. Earning a Master of Public Health is one way to help close that gap. You will graduate with a holistic understanding of the health needs of populations, the most pressing issues in public health, the determinants of public health, and the role of data in program planning.

What Can You Do with a Master’s in Public Health?

Because Master of Public Health programs tend to be multidisciplinary and concentration-based, the MPH is an exceedingly versatile degree. Specialization options at the University of Tennessee include Community Health Education and Veterinary Public Health—each of which can lead graduates down different public health career paths. Some positions acquired by MPH holders come with titles like director, coordinator, administrator, or manager. Other leadership roles include public health educators, analysts, scientists, and specialists influencing policy, large-scale strategy, and training the next generation of public health professionals.

These roles exist across specialty areas of public health and in a variety of settings. MPH graduates become public health administrators and managers, working for healthcare agencies and facilities, nonprofit public health organizations, think tanks, human services agencies, public health departments, and other government agencies to develop, oversee, and expand initiatives. They become emergency preparedness coordinators, working in government and private agencies to protect communities, regions, or populations against natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, and bioterrorism and mitigate the impact of inescapable catastrophes. They become public health program directors, ensuring that initiatives addressing population-, disease- or region-specific issues are effective and financially stable. And they become researchers, lobbyists, strategists, and consultants.

Is an MPH Degree Necessary?

While some career paths in public health are open to community health education or health sciences bachelor’s degree holders, many public health jobs call for a master’s as the entry-level degree. To step into leadership roles in public health, it is highly likely you will need to invest in an MPH. Fortunately, the degree is both a personal and public investment, having great impact benefitting the lives of many.

“The crescendo of seemingly intractable threats to our global well-being has prompted a call for more leaders in public health,” according to an article in the Journal of Public Health. The nature of public health is changing rapidly and increasing in complexity, and public health leaders need timely knowledge, application skills, and credentials to be effective.

2018 article in the Indian Journal of Public Health describes the qualities of effective public health leaders succinctly. They must be competent, charismatic, and ready to take risks and utilize opportunities to meet population and community needs. They must also have a clear vision of what change looks like and be ready to transform that vision into a specific goal-driven strategy. Community health educators and other public health professionals also need highly developed leadership and management skills to lead public health programs and manage community health workers.

The University of Tennessee’s 100 percent online 42 credit-hour MPH program will prepare you to influence positive change in health services, health education, and population health. The core MPH curriculum includes coursework that addresses biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, policy, health systems, program planning, and evaluation. Upon graduation, you will have the skills and training needed to implement principles of leadership, governance, and management in the public health arena. These skills will assist in creating vision, advocating for change, fostering collaboration, and guiding decision-making and policy development at all levels. To put it another way, an MPH degree will help you empower others to make the world a healthier place.

Translate your passion for public health into constructive action with a Master of Public Health from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Learn more about the MPH program, the admissions requirements, and the available MPH concentrations, or apply online today.