The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and mental health: These are just three significant public health challenges that affect individuals, communities and the nation, and they have brought public health into the spotlight for governments, health workers and individuals. Professionals working in this sector play a crucial role in addressing these challenges.
In this article, we will explore the major public health issues in Australia, discuss the factors contributing to these issues and highlight the critical role public health experts play in managing them. We will also discuss the skills and knowledge required to work in public health and how postgraduate study can help professionals upskill, allowing them to make a significant impact in their communities.
Current and emerging Australian public health issues
Dr Christopher Fisher is the Associate Professor and Academic Course Coordinator for VU Online's Masters of Public Health and has worked in the field of public health for 20 years. He gives us an overview of the current landscape of public health.
In Australia, there are a number of broad-picture public health issues that are of concern, as well as those that go beyond Australia and are, in fact, global health issues, he says.
These range from global pandemics and climate change to sexual health and obesity.
Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of effective public health management, with widespread impacts on health, social and economic outcomes. However, the risk of another pandemic like COVID-19 is just one of Australia's many emerging public health issues, with concerns such as obesity, mental health and chronic disease also posing significant challenges.
Natural hazards caused by climate change are also of particular concern in Australia, with bushfires, floods and storms causing devastation to our communities. Below, we explore four of the main public health issues in more detail, including natural hazards.
The COVID-19 pandemic raised the profile of public health and the importance of public health services in Australia and internationally. The virus profoundly affected the country's healthcare system, economy and society, and extensive efforts were made to control its spread and mitigate its effects.
While progress was made in developing and rolling out vaccines, the pandemic's ongoing impacts highlight the importance of public health measures in protecting the population from infectious diseases.
We learnt a lot through COVID in terms of preventing future pandemics or managing future pandemics as best we can going forward, says Dr Fisher. We are now more aware that these viruses are very easily transmitted in public spaces and that they can have significant consequences on people's health, wellbeing and livelihoods.
Climate change is a significant public health issue for Australians, with the potential to cause a range of health challenges both directly and indirectly.
Natural disasters, such as floods and bushfires, can lead to the displacement of populations and disrupt agricultural practices, affecting food availability. These scenarios can cause trauma and psychological distress in affected communities where residents may already be experiencing anxiety, depression and grief from droughts and a loss of biodiversity.
When we look at something like climate change, explains Dr Fisher, we now understand that it creates public health issues through the myriad ways it impacts people's more immediate health concerns. These issues are interconnected, and it's important that we view them this way moving forward.
Obesity is a significant public health issue in Australia. A recent study by the Australian Insitute of Health and Welfare found two in three (67 per cent) Australians aged 18 and over were overweight or obese. That's around 12.5 million adults.
As Dr Fisher explains, one of the factors contributing to the high rates of obesity in Australia is the availability and affordability of unhealthy food options, particularly in low-income areas.
Public health professionals play a vital role in developing and implementing strategies to address obesity as a public health issue. This includes conducting research to better understand the causes of obesity and performing interventions to prevent and treat obesity.
Public health professionals also work with government, industry and community groups to develop and implement policies and education programs. These initiatives aim to improve access to healthy food options, promote physical activity and reduce the consumption of unhealthy food and drinks.
All of this work contributes to lowering obesity rates and, therefore, reducing the risk of other health issues developing.
Mental health is a significant concern in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released a study showing more than two in five Australians aged 16 to 85 experience a mental disorder at some time in their lives. Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse can have a profound effect on individuals, families and communities. In addition to the human cost, in 2019–20, the national recurrent spending on mental health-related services was estimated to be $11 billion.
Mental health is complex, and addressing it as a public health issue requires a multifaceted approach. Public health professionals play a primary role in developing and implementing strategies to improve mental health outcomes, including prevention, early intervention and improving access to care.
Through government- and community-based initiatives, we can also work towards reducing the stigma associated with mental health conditions and improving mental health outcomes for all Australians.
It's important to recognise that people's mental health is greatly impacted by other health concerns, says Dr Fisher. Therefore, it's important to recognise the interconnectedness of health issues and the impact they can have on mental health in order to develop effective public health strategies.
Tackling contemporary issues in public health
Public health experts play a crucial role in managing public health issues in Australia. They use their expertise in epidemiology, health promotion, data analysis and other public health fields to identify risk factors, design and implement interventions and evaluate health programs.
Public health experts also work with community and government groups to develop policies, allocate resources and coordinate health interventions. They use evidence-based approaches to design and implement health programs that improve health outcomes, reduce health disparities and promote health equity.
There are many different roles within the public health sector, and each role comes with its own expertise. For example, an infection preventionist works to ensure healthcare workers and patients are doing everything they should to prevent infections. There are those who collect and analyse data while others examine what we've learned from the data and give advice on how best to respond.
Oftentimes, somebody in public health will develop some level of expertise in a range of similar issues, says Dr Fisher. So whether that's nutrition, physical activity, sexual health pandemics, viruses — those kinds of things. And then from that expertise, it can go in a lot of different directions.
Government and community public health initiatives
One of the biggest areas of development by the Australian Government is the establishment of the Australian Centre for Disease Control (CDC).
In some ways, explains Dr Fisher, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the government beginning to establish the CDC to really help corral all of the resources and expertise to address some of these larger national issues that are going on.
The purpose of the CDC is to create an institution that can respond to all of these issues at a national level. It's also there to work hand in hand with state and territory governments and departments of public health, as well as non-governmental organisations.
This will allow us to bring everything together and make sure that we're focusing our energies on the most pressing issues at the time, adds Dr Fisher.
When it comes to community public health initiatives, Dr Fisher believes that non-governmental organisations or community groups are the heart and soul of public health.
These organisations are closest to the community and to the people impacted by a particular issue, he says. They get a good sense of what's going on and how best to work together.
The unity between the Australian Government, the Australian Department of Health and the organisations working in the field is important. Together, they can make a lot of progress in developing strategies and policy around how best to address issues, Dr Fisher says.
He explains that this is to provide guidance not only for organisations working out in the field but also in helping to guide and direct funding to support those efforts. Disaster preparedness is a shared responsibility in which all sectors of society need to be involved.
4 essential skills needed to work in public health
Those working in public health need to understand and address the complex issues facing our communities. To do this, a range of skills and knowledge is essential.
There are certain public health skills you'll gather through general work experience or specific training courses, while others can be developed through postgraduate study. Some of these skills include epidemiology, health promotion, data analysis, critical thinking, communication and leadership.
Below we explore the four essential skills of communication, critical literacy, technical capabilities and working with the community.
Because public health professionals engage with diverse communities and stakeholders, they must be effective communicators. This skill involves the ability to convey complex health information clearly and persuasively to different audiences. For example, a health educator must be able to communicate information to community members in a culturally appropriate and accessible way.
An important skill is an ability to communicate effectively across diverse audiences and to find common ground to work collaboratively towards a shared goal, says Dr Fisher. Public health professionals must be able to cut across silos and understand multiple perspectives to bring people together towards a common purpose.
I think COVID-19 had an impact on public health in terms of raising people's awareness of listening to those messages and taking them on board and realising that oftentimes, with these messages that public health professionals put out, they're meant as a way to arm the public to be able to respond and protect themselves as well as those they love.
2. Critical literacy
This involves the ability to evaluate information and data, identify patterns and trends, and make informed decisions based on evidence. For example, an epidemiologist must be able to analyse health data to identify disease outbreaks and recommend effective prevention strategies.
Critical literacy skills are essential for working in public health, says Dr Fisher. In a master's program, students engage with current literature and are challenged to think critically about multiple articles with differing perspectives on a particular topic. Developing the ability to assess and synthesise information from various sources is critical for success in the field. It might be a case of collecting data, looking at that data and then implementing strategies.
3. Technical capabilities
Working in public health in Australia requires a range of technical skills. Technical skills might include epidemiology, the study of patterns and causes of health and disease in populations, or biostatistics, involving the application of statistical methods to health data.
According to Dr Fisher, Collecting accurate information and knowing what the data is telling us is a vital part of certain public health roles. We have people who are out collecting and analysing the data to make sense of what the numbers are telling us so that we can pinpoint and focus on where issues are arising.
4. Working with the community
A large part of working in public health also involves working within a local community. Public health professionals aren't always working in an office, but are out talking to people or informing GPs in the local vicinity about upcoming or ongoing issues.
Dr Fisher puts it another way. It could be about raising awareness or developing campaigns so that people know what the issue might be. You need people who are doing the follow-up work, so if someone is in a risk category or has a particular disease, they are aware of the support available.
Careers in public health
There has never been a better time for health professionals to pursue a career in public health. From public health nurses, epidemiologists, health promotion officers, environmental health officers, researchers and policy advisors, you could find yourself in a wide range of roles and industries. Let's look at a few roles.
Epidemiologists are public health professionals who investigate and monitor the patterns and causes of disease in populations. They collect and analyse data to identify disease outbreaks, risk factors and preventive measures. They also design and implement public health interventions to prevent and control the spread of diseases. Epidemiologists play a crucial role in identifying and responding to public health emergencies, such as pandemics or bioterrorism threats.
Health promotion officer
Health promotion officers work to promote healthy lifestyle choices and behaviours in communities. They design and implement health promotion campaigns, develop health education materials and provide health education and counselling to individuals and groups. Health promotion officers work to address health inequalities and social determinants of health by promoting access to health services and healthy living environments.
Public health nurse
Public health nurses provide health care services and education to individuals and communities. They work to prevent illness and promote health by providing immunisations, health screenings and disease-prevention counselling. Public health nurses also provide community education and outreach and collaborate with other health professionals to identify and address public health concerns.
Environmental health officer
Environmental health officers are responsible for monitoring and regulating environmental factors that can affect public health. They inspect and enforce regulations related to food safety, water quality, air pollution and waste management. Environmental health officers also investigate complaints related to public health hazards and work to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
Health data analyst
Health data analysts collect, manage and analyse health data to inform public health policy and practice. They work to identify trends and patterns in health data to inform decision-making and resource allocation. Health data analysts also develop data visualisation tools to help communicate complex health data to policymakers and the public. Health data analysts are essential in ensuring that public health decisions are based on accurate and reliable data.
Trends and innovations in public health
When it comes to trends and innovations in the public health space, Dr Fisher explains that looking to the younger generations can tell us a lot about current public health issues.
Vaping is a big issue at the moment that we're looking to address, he explains. Particularly where people are importing products that contain nicotine. The addictive effects of nicotine, especially on young people, seems to be a marketing ploy.
Australia's innovation around this issue, through talking to various groups and stakeholders, is helping to make big changes. In the last couple of years, Australia has introduced import licensing and medical prescriptions to help with the vaping issue.
If somebody is trying to quit smoking, for example, and needs to wean off using a vaping product, there is now a process to go through whereby they can get a prescription via the appropriate import licences to do that, describes Dr Fisher. It's a few extra hurdles for people, but it helps to bring down the number of people who are using vapes recreationally and potentially damaging their health.
The leveraging of social media for communicating public health messaging is another area Australia is focused on, Dr Fisher adds. Whether it's Facebook, TikTok, Instagram or other platforms, how do we use social media to try and get the message out there to the people it matters to the most?
How postgraduate study can help develop the skills needed to work in public health
Postgraduate study can be a valuable tool for developing the skills needed to work in public health in Australia. Public health professionals require a range of skills and knowledge and a postgraduate degree in public health can provide students with a comprehensive understanding of these skills and the opportunity to apply them in real-world settings.
Dr Fisher explains the importance of having a broad understanding of everything that public health involves. Having an understanding of various roles within public health can help you work effectively with a diverse group of professionals in the field, he says.
It is crucial to know about various specialisations within public health, even if you don't work in those areas. Understanding the role of health promotion, education, epidemiology, biostatistics and other public health theories is vital.
A master of public health program provides students with the opportunity to work with a diverse range of individuals from different backgrounds, ages and stages of life. This, in turn, enhances their ability to see public health issues from multiple angles and develop skills to work collaboratively with others.
VU Online's Master of Public Health covers a range of topics, including epidemiology, biostatistics, health policy and management, health promotion and environmental health. The course also includes practical components such as field placements and project work, which provide students with hands-on experience in public health practice. Students graduate with a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influence public health and the tools and strategies required to address these issues.
Considering a career in public health?
As our population ages, health professionals are confronted with complex challenges. However, these challenges also bring opportunities for positive change, especially with an increase in innovation spurred by the pandemic.
With a Master of Public Health, job opportunities in Australia are wide and varied. Public health professionals are responsible for everything from preventing pandemics to promoting community wellbeing. They work with the government and policymakers to create the best responses and outcomes for the issues facing their community.
VU Online's Master of Public Health is a fantastic opportunity for health professionals to enhance their skills and knowledge and effectively tackle these challenges. Take the first step towards your new career as a public health expert and reach out to VU Online's Student Enrolment team for more information about how you can get started.