Public Health vs. Medicine vs. Nursing

Undergraduate students with an interest in healthcare have a number of education and career opportunities to explore. Some students might be curious about the differences between public health and medicine, or public health and nursing, and may be unsure which field to pursue.

Many students choose to become a nurse or physician because they want to help people directly. However, public health focuses on helping people both directly and indirectly through education and awareness. While someone working in public health may not have patients to treat, they are looking to address health concerns and prevent negative health outcomes in the population and communities. 

Public health, medicine and nursing may have different focuses, but they frequently overlap. Explore the differences and similarities between these healthcare fields.

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Public Health vs. Medicine: Similarities and Differences

The biggest difference between public health and medicine, besides requiring a medical degree to practice, is the patient. In public health, the patient is typically a community or population. In medicine, the patient is an individual. If there is a disease outbreak, a physician will examine, diagnose and treat the patient. A public health professional may research the outbreak, create awareness or health programs, and help develop health policies with the goal of reducing or preventing future outbreaks.

Coursework Comparison

There are similarities in coursework for public health and medicine. Both areas of study will have an emphasis on research, math and science. In addition to classroom work, students have to complete clinical or practical experience in each field.

For students interested in medicine, pre-medicine is typically offered as a track for undergraduate students. This means it is not a major. Rather, students can choose any major as long as they complete the requirements to apply to medical school. According to Princeton Review, prerequisite courses for pre-med usually include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and math and statistics courses. Students may also be required to take social sciences like psychology and sociology. An understanding of biological sciences is critical in medicine and patient care, which is why students have to take these courses for medical school.Medicine and pre-med courses may vary depending on academic semester or schools. However, some example of medicine courses may include: 

  • Introduction to Clinical Medicine
  • Human Structure and Function
  • Cardiovascular, Renal and Respiratory Medicine
  • Medical Neurosciences
  • Primary Care and Surgery

Public health students also take biology and chemistry as prerequisite courses because biological sciences are helpful when studying public health threats and interventions. However, public health courses tend to focus on disease prevention and health behavior. Students take courses in the disciplines of public health: biostatistics, epidemiology, health policy, social and behavioral sciences, and environmental health. Some examples of courses include: 

  • Introduction to Epidemiology
  • Global Public Health
  • Social Determinants of Health
  • Public Health Nutrition
  • Public Health Management

These courses align with the different specializations in public health. Concentrations can help you customize your degree based on your desired career path. Some programs may even offer pre-medicine as a public health concentration.

Degree Requirements Comparison

The length of time to earn a degree varies for public health and medicine. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to practice medicine, a doctoral degree is required for entry-level positions. In comparison, entry-level public health jobs can range from requiring a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree, such as community health worker vs an epidemiologist. In most instances, medicine requires more education than public health.

Public Health vs. Nursing: Similarities and Differences

Nurses are required to have medical knowledge and clinical experience, which is not required of most public health jobs. Nurses care for patients, administer medicine, and work closely with physicians and other team members. Public health professionals focus on reducing exposures or other factors that may lead people to seek a nurse’s care. 

Even though they perform different functions, nurses and public health specialists can work in the same settings. The BLS cites that registered nurses often work in hospitals and government settings. These are work settings that also employ public health specialists, including those working as epidemiologists and environmental health specialists.

Coursework Comparison

Coursework prepares nursing students to use evidence and clinical experience to make decisions about patient care. Students also learn how to use the practice of nursing to promote health in communities. Therefore, nursing students may take classes that overlap with public health curriculum, such as Health Care Policy, Science of Human Nutrition and Biostatistics for Evidence-Based Practice. Some nursing programs even have concentrations in public health, typically for those earning a Master of Science in Nursing.

Similar to medicine, nursing students must take natural science courses in anatomy, chemistry and biology. A statistics course is usually required as well. Foundational courses may include: 

  • Introductory Statistics 
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology 
  • Microbiology
  • Introduction to Biology

There are also courses that prepare students to earn their licensure and provide patient care, such as Foundations of Nursing Practice, Acute and Chronic Illness Management, and Nursing Pharmacology. Exact courses vary based on the program.

Public health focuses on mass population instead of individual treatment. However, there can be some overlap between public health and nursing in foundational coursework.

Degree and Licensure Requirements Comparison

The minimum educational requirements vary between public health and nursing. Many public health jobs require a bachelor’s or master’s degree. For example, a health and safety engineer typically needs to have a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level job, according to the BLS. To be able to work as a licensed registered nurse, unlike public health professionals, students must pass a licensure exam.  In order to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam, students must first apply with the state’s regulatory board of nursing where they plan to be licensed and meet the state’s requirements. Some state’s minimum degree requirements may be an associates degree in nursing (ADN), while others’ may be an BSN. However, those with a master’s degree, who also pass their nursing licensure exam, they will have the knowledge required for leadership positions in nursing (PDF, 275 KB), according to the American Public Health Association. 

Importantly, compared with public health, nursing is a more regulated field. For example, registered nurses are required to apply to the nursing regulatory body where they wish to be licensed, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Then, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination. Public health specialists can earn voluntary certificates through organizations like the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology. However, most public health jobs do not have licensure requirements. There are certain public health certifications that can demonstrate working professionals’ competency and credibility, but most of them are not mandatory. 

Degree Examples and Career Paths Comparison

Are you curious about the common degrees offered by school and what you can do in each field? Read on to learn about the different degree options and career paths in public health, medicine and nursing.

Degree Examples and Career Paths Comparison
Public Health Medicine Nursing

Bachelor’s:
Bachelor of Science in Public Health (BPH)

Master’s:
Master of Public Health (MPH)
Master of Science (MS) in Public Health
Master of Health Administration (MHA)
Master’s in Health Informatics (MHI)

Doctorate:
Doctor of Public Health (DrPH)

Bachelor’s:
Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biology
Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Applied Psychology

Master’s:
Master of Science (MS) in Medicine

Doctorate:
Doctor of Medicine (MD)
Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

Bachelor’s:
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Master’s:
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Doctorate:
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing

Public Health Concentrations

Epidemiology
Biostatistics
Global Health
Occupational Health

Medical Concentrations

Genetic Counseling
Pediatrics
Psychiatry
Oncology

Nursing Concentrations

Forensic Nursing
Family Nurse Practitioner
Midwifery

Public Health Focus

Population or Community Health
Disease Prevention

Medical Focus

Individual Health
Diagnosis and Treatment

Nursing Focus

Individual Health Treatment

Public Health Professions

Epidemiologist
Biostatistician
Community Health Educator
Environmental Health Specialist

Medical Professions

Anesthesiologist
General Surgeon
Pediatrician
Cardiologist
Psychiatrist

Nursing Professions

Nurse Practitioner
Registered Nurse
Certified Nurse-Midwife
Nurse Educator
Clinical Nurse Leader

Public Health Work Settings

Hospitals
Research
Government
Nonprofit
Private Sector
Academia

Medical Work Settings

Hospitals
Outpatient Care
Research
Government
Primary Care
Academia

Nursing Work Settings

Hospitals
Nursing Care
Home Healthcare
Research
Medical Clinic
Academia

There is a lot of overlap between public health and nursing, which is why many schools offer dual master’s degrees, such as MPH-MSN, MPH-PA or bachelor’s to master’s dual degrees, such as BS-MPH. You may consider your interest and bandwidth to decide if a dual degree is right for you.

Also because of the overlap, some working professionals with their nursing degrees might opt to pursue an MPH degree to help serve people at a community level. For those who want more flexibility in time or work-and-life balance, an online MPH program might be an option.

To learn more about career opportunities in public health, read our guide on What Can You Do with a Public Health Degree.

Is it easy to change a major from medicine to public health?

It may be easy to switch from medicine to public health if your courses have overlapped. Typically, courses in math and science are required for both majors. Degree requirements vary, so it’s important to know what your school expects you to complete for each major. Reach out to your desired school and discuss the requirements.

Public Health vs. Medicine vs. Nursing: Which is the best?

The answer to this question is entirely up to you. If you want a career where you can work directly with individual patients, a career in medicine or nursing might be best for you. If you want to research public health problems and prevent disease, a career in public health may be ideal. No matter which path you choose, you’ll have the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.

Information last updated June 2020

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