Careers in public health

Public health workers have always played an incredibly important role in society. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought them into the spotlight and we as a society have been especially grateful for the work that they do. Perhaps this has sparked an interest in public health for you. If you too would like to be hailed as a hero and do your part to save lives, then one of the many careers in public health could be right for you.

While Covid-19 has stolen the spotlight recently, fighting infectious diseases is only one of many health issues that public health workers deal with. As well as providing medical care to clinics and hospitals, public health workers also work on preventative measures, education and the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

The public health system Is a complex, interconnected network requiring many people with a wide range of specialised skills. After all, the public health system interacts with citizens from before they are born till death. This means there are various careers and specialisations that can be pursued within the field of public health.

To help you decide on whether or not a public health career is right for you, we’ll cover the subject in more detail. We’ll take a look at examples of careers in public health, medical careers in high demand, the best paying medical careers and international careers in public health. We’ll also answer some common questions in our FAQ below.

What medical careers are in high demand?

Deciding to work in public health or private medicine is only the first step as there are many careers in public health to choose from. It might seem daunting trying to decide from the many jobs and specialisations. If you don’t have a specific area of interest beyond wanting to improve people’s health and provide yourself with a reliable source of income, then it is useful to know which areas have the most demand.

At the time of writing South Africa has made global news for the highest rate of unemployment in the world. While this paints a dire picture for the country and the economy, having a sought-after qualification and the skills to provide needed services will greatly improve your job prospects.

The South African government published a list of critical skills needed in the country, which was summarised in this news report. The list covers many different industries, but the list of medical and clinical professional jobs is longer than for any other industry or sector.

According to the summary, these are the medical and clinical professional jobs that South Africa requires more of: medical practitioners, industrial pharmacists, radiation therapists, radiographers, gastro-intestinal technologists, vascular technologists, physiologists, audiologists, perfusionists, senior health services and public health managers, registered nurses, clinical nurse specialists, clinical nurse managers, advanced nursing practitioners, registered midwives, clinical midwife specialists, clinical midwife managers, advanced midwife practitioners, orthoptists, prosthetists, orthotists, registered paramedics and registered advanced paramedic practitioners.

Highest paid careers in public health

As you can see, the list of medical skills needed is very extensive. While this is good to know, it probably doesn’t help you narrow down your choice. Another handy metric by which to compare medical careers is salary.

According to this list of the top 10 highest paid medical careers in South Africa, surgeons are the best paid. Top of the list is a heart transplant surgeon with an average monthly salary of R152,000. Following closely behind are orthopaedic surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons, plastic reconstructive surgeons, invasive cardiologist surgeons, neurology surgeons, pediatric surgeons and trauma surgeons. The only non-surgical job in the top 10 list is that of a urologist, with an average salary of R108,000 that puts them just ahead of general surgeons who earn R105,000 a month on average.

International careers in public health

In the above section we looked specifically at what medical careers are in high demand in South Africa. Public health, however, is much broader than just medicine and it is needed across the world.

Both medical and public health skills are transferable if you are considering working internationally. Unlike some professions such as lawyers or tax accountants who deal with issues that are very specific to a particular country’s laws and frameworks, medical skills can be used globally. Human anatomy is the same for everyone across the world, regardless of a country’s political and legal framework.

Here is a list of the 10 most in-demand public health jobs internationally:

  • Policy analyst
  • Epidemiologist
  • Medical officer
  • Programme manager and adviser
  • Health scientist
  • Public health adviser
  • Field consultant
  • Disaster relief support technician
  • NGO aid worker
  • Global health educator

What are examples of health careers?

The above list should give you a better feel for the variety of support and administrative roles that go into providing public health. The doctors and nurses on the front lines in hospitals may be the face of public health we’re most familiar with, but there is much more to public health than that.

Outside of medical practitioners, public health offers careers in public health administration, careers in public health epidemiology and other areas of research, administration and policy planning and implementation.

At the top of the public health hierarchy, are the managers and coordinators who set up the policies and structures to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Nobody starts at the top though. Examples of entry-level public health jobs include health educators, community health workers, occupational health and safety specialists and technicians, environmental science and protection technicians and epidemiologists.

To see for yourself what jobs are available, check out the entry-level public health jobs offered on these jobs sites:

You might be surprised to learn that people also pursue veterinary careers in public health. They prevent things such as livestock diseases and zoonoses, which are infectious diseases that have jumped from animals to humans. Though speculation is still rife as to whether Covid came from a bat, an aardvark or some other animal, the risk of zoonoses is now something the world is far more aware of than in previous years.


Here we’ve answered some common questions on public health and the different careers available.

Why should I study public health?

If you would like to be part of the public health system but do not want to work as a doctor, nurse or other medical practitioner, then a degree in public health will give you the qualification you need to enter the field. Public health does require many lower-skilled jobs, but if your ambitions are set higher than to become a hospital cleaner, receptionist or driver, then you will most likely need a degree to work in the field.

What can you do with a career in public health?

As we’ve shown, there’s a multiplicity of different careers that can be followed in public health. Some common elements across those different careers include a high degree of job security and longevity. Public health workers also benefit from the fact that their day-to-day work has a direct impact on improving the lives of people. As a result, public health workers often enjoy the respect and admiration of those in their community

Is public health a good career?

Yes, public health is a good career choice. Of course “good” is entirely subjective and it may not appeal to everyone, but it offers objectively good job security and pay. Public health workers also benefit from the fact that their job has a direct and positive benefit on society. Public health offers good job satisfaction and a far greater sense of purpose than most other careers

Is public health a hard major?

Yes and no. In South Africa, public health is a stand-alone degree and not a subject that can be majored in as part of another degree. A bachelor’s in public health is on par with other bachelor-level degrees, meaning that it will require dedication and time to complete. As with other fields, people can study further at honours, Masters and even PhD level, with each of these being more difficult to complete than the preceding level.

What qualifications do you need to work in public health?

As mentioned above there are indeed lower-level jobs in public health that do not require much qualification, but those are mostly generic jobs that are needed across different industries, such as cleaners, drivers and receptionists. To work more directly in public health does require a degree. A bachelor’s degree in public health is usually sufficient for most entry-level jobs, however, some roles such as an epidemiologist require a master’s degree at the least.

Is a masters in public health worth it?

A master’s degree is certainly not for everyone, but that makes it all the more valuable for those who do complete one. Public health is a field where academic qualifications are very important and higher-level degrees are required for more senior roles. There are many industries where work experience and natural talent can allow people to climb high without postgraduate degrees, but this is not the case in public health.

What are the branches of public health?

Public health workers can specialise in biostatistics, environmental health, epidemiology, health policy management or social and behavioural sciences. To see more about each of these, please read our article on how and why to study public health.

Who is considered a public health worker?

By definition, anyone who works within the public health system is a public health worker. As mentioned, many people are working in support roles who are not specifically public health workers even though they work in the industry. A more narrow definition excluding those roles still includes a multitude of different people and roles. For more comprehensive lists of jobs, please see the above sections on examples of careers in public health, medical careers in high demand, the best paying medical careers and international careers in public health.

Study public health online at UP

UP offers a fully online Postgraduate Diploma in Public Health programme that can be completed in two years. It is aimed at public health workers who want to advance their careers. It provides graduates with the skills and knowledge to assess, plan, implement, manage, monitor and evaluate public health programmes, services or interventions at any level of the health system. As with all of of UP’s online programmes, there are six starting dates throughout the year fees are structured so you only need to pay for one module at a time.