Health Administration Careers in Disease Prevention
To say that disease prevention is a field that is has been on a lot of people’s minds lately is maybe the understatement of the century.
The COVID-19 pandemic shoved disease prevention work into the global spotlight and instantly showed the world both how important the field is, and the cracks that had been allowed to develop in the profession over the years. The recognition that breakdowns in disease prevention mechanisms lead to the spread and severity of the pandemic wasn’t slow in coming. The aftermath will see shake-ups in national and international agencies dedicated to preventing such epidemics… interesting times to enter the profession, with big opportunities to make big differences in preventing the next big threat to global health.
Neither COVID-19 nor any other preventable disease takes time off for researchers or practitioners to catch up, though. There’s no time-out for a reset. Disease prevention managers will have to push through the pain and continue to show up and deliver their best to manage ongoing outbreaks, along with all the existing programs that have been trampled in the pandemic.
Disease prevention has always been about far more than just infectious disease and its spread. There is a danger now that the emphasis in the profession will swing too far in the other direction, negating the benefits and value it has shown in health promotion and fighting chronic diseases like:
None of these threats have diminished even as COVID has overshadowed them. It remains the responsibility of leaders in this field to assess, facilitate, stimulate and disseminate research about health promotion practice and disease prevention programs to improve public health. That’s especially true of programs like the otherwise amazingly successful Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which had to be put on pause during the crisis to reduce the possibility of vaccination teams spreading COVID-19. Restarting that initiative and hundreds of others will take dedication and training from capable teams with solid leadership skills.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from the pandemic that stretches across all the considerations of disease prevention work, it’s this: it’s a field that requires the most highly motivated, the best educated, the most adept communicators, and the most clear-headed administrators at absolutely every level.
From the staff on the ground in laboratories analyzing new viral strains to public outreach professionals crafting the messages that inform the public of the threats and responses, to the policy advisors attending meetings with the most powerful decision-makers in the world, there’s just no room for second-best.
Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Offer Lots of Opportunities to Administrators
As the medical understanding of disease and contributing factors has improved over years of research and study, it has become clear that disease prevention and health promotion can tap into dozens of different specialty areas and must be championed everywhere from public policy shops to major medical centers to insurance companies. That means there are roles for healthcare administrators in all kinds of different fields, from public schools, to hospitals, to community advocacy groups, to major federal agencies, and at every level, from administrative clerks handling application paperwork in food assistance programs to powerful policy directors making decisions on vaccine rollouts for millions of people.
The one thing that remains constant is the emphasis on guiding individuals and groups toward healthier behaviors.
At its heart, this type of healthcare career focuses on determining and disseminating the strategies that prevent people from getting sick, and that aid individuals in becoming healthier day by day. And that can happen in almost any context where human beings live and work.
Research, Logistics, and Communication Characterize Healthcare Administration Work in Disease Prevention
The day-to-day tasks of disease prevention administrators can vary wildly in pursuit of those goals. From the big-picture strategic planning that goes into global campaigns like malaria eradication or HIV-prevention down to the individuals who are ordering and distributing the mosquito netting and the condoms and anti-viral cocktails, there is a lot of nuts-and-bolts work that falls right into the area of expertise held by healthcare administrators.
Disease prevention is a four-step process, with administrative requirements at every stop:
Identifying disease threats: While clinicians and researchers are the ones who are out in the clinics, streets, and labs identifying ongoing and upcoming threats to health, supporting and organizing those efforts falls squarely on healthcare administrators. They may maintain large databases and work with data analytics staff to identify and track trends, take care of the logistics of phone and in-person health surveys, and coordinate large surveillance networks to detect emerging threats.
Driving research and information: Once a health threat has been isolated, administrators are the ones who push forward the research efforts to better define it and determine the causes. They arrange for the lab-space and equipment, hire researchers and analysts, and catalog and document research results for later analysis.
Developing preventive mechanisms: During the summer and fall of 2020, healthcare administrators at pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson burned the candle at both ends working with both clinicians and federal regulators to push through vaccine development for COVID-19 under the aptly-termed Operation Warp Speed. Meanwhile, their counterparts at the CDC and in public health agencies at the state and local levels scrambled to put into place programs for distributing those vaccines. That kind of legwork happens in almost every disease prevention effort at some point, and administrators handle the heavy lifting.
Implementing prevention programs: The hardest part in disease prevention is almost always engaging the public in the behaviors needed to make it work. Administrators work hard to develop public policies to support disease prevention, like making menu changes in schools to reduce childhood obesity, to coming up with exercise recommendations for seniors. They are responsible for translating those policies into effective messaging platforms and communicating that information to the people who need to hear it. Finally, they make ongoing efforts to monitor improvements and assess the accomplishments of disease prevention programs so they know what might work the next time.
As you can guess, that can pull a lot of variety out of administrative work depending on what sort of area you choose to specialize in. You might be working with outpatients as they recover from acute illnesses, teaching them how to care for themselves in the best way possible.
Other positions are more research-oriented and focus on designing and investigating community based health interventions that reduce disease rates and improve health outcomes. You may work one-on-one with patients, or you may work as a part of a local, national or international group, drawing on research and analysis to determine the best ways to promote health.
Though the specifics of each job within this field can vary widely, the mission to improve health and help people is the common thread in disease prevention and health promotion.
Getting the Right Degree for Jobs in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Because disease prevention and health promotion work have such a wide variety of associated career paths and fields, you’ll also find that you can get involved in the field with a lot of different sorts of college majors:
There are also schools that offer degrees specific to health promotion and disease prevention, but it’s not necessary to pick those degrees to be successful in the field. The general skills are the same that healthcare administrators pick up in dozens of similar degree programs.
As with any sort of college education, you’ll usually find that the more years you study and higher degree you get, the level of salary and responsibility you can command in the field will increase. For the most part, however, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree even to get into entry level jobs like health communication or disease intervention specialist roles.
Some part-time and emergency positions are open to associate degree-holders or even just high-school graduates, like contact tracers or temporary health educators, but you can’t count on an epidemic emergency to pop up right when you need it.
These degrees may be offered with an Arts or Science focus (a Bachelor of Art or Bachelor of Science, for example), which gives you some idea what the emphasis is in the coursework being delivered:
On the whole, you can think of a BA or MA as being better preparation for supervisory or public-facing roles, while a BS or MS might be a better choice for behind the scenes or technical service jobs. There are no hard and fast rules, and you can qualify for any position with either type of degree, however.
Associate Programs in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
You won’t find these two-year degrees in any field specific to disease prevention or health promotion, but you can find associate programs in healthcare administration that can be used as a stepping-stone into full four-year bachelor’s degrees that lead to the field. An associate degree will include some industry-specific knowledge and education, such as the basics of office management, healthcare ethics and regulations, and basic financial matters. It will also have a handful of general education courses, in areas like English, math, or communications, which serve to fulfill requirements for transferability into a bachelor’s program.
You should check carefully to ensure that a transfer agreement exists between a college where you intend to earn your associate and the university where you are considering earning a bachelor’s to make sure your credits will be accepted if you decide to proceed.
Bachelor’s in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
A full four-year degree (only two more on top of an associate, if you took that path first) is the ground-level for getting into healthcare administration in disease prevention. You can find these degrees covering any major related to the field. They’ll offer coursework that is more in-depth and specific to the field that anything in an associate program, but bachelor’s degrees also include a significant amount of other general education courses, even in science degrees. It’s all part of what makes bachelor’s graduates well-rounded professionals.
Master’s in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
A master’s program may last two to three years and can also be found in any relevant major for disease prevention. With the generalist approach of the bachelor’s program out of the way, these degree programs focus exclusively on the most advanced aspects of study related to the major, going for small classes with high levels of research and discourse expected.
Master’s graduates are headed for positions of significant responsibility in the field, so they also regularly go through internships and work closely on current research projects in the field, making connections and observing professionals in action.
Doctorate in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
A doctorate represents the highest level of education that you can get in healthcare administration, and graduates hold some of the highest posts in the field. Although the length of the program is similar to those of master’s programs, the focus of a doctorate is unique: producing groundbreaking original research or applications in the field, distilled into a project suitable for implementation or a dissertation for publication.
There are two types of doctorate options in the field, the DHA (Doctor of Healthcare Administration) and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). Traditionally, the DHA is an applied degree, aimed toward practical applications and leadership in the field, while a PhD is oriented more toward theoretical research and academic pursuits. Particularly with disease prevention and health promotion, however, the lines between these can blur considerably, and PhDs may hold advanced leadership roles while DHAs engage in important research programs.
Accreditation Considerations in Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Education
Most students don’t stop to think much about college accreditation. That’s because just about every college you have ever heard of already holds a general accreditation from one of the seven major regional accrediting organizations operating in the U.S.:
For bachelor and associate programs, that’s all the assurance you need that the program meets the high standards that American businesses and medical facilities expect of college graduates. At the master’s level, however, you should also look for a specialty accreditation from CAHME, the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education.
CAHME performs the same task as other accreditors by evaluating programs with a combination of reviews and on-site inspections, determining the quality of resources, materials, and curricula in use, but it does so with a perspective aligned squarely with the needs of the healthcare community. Evaluators have experience in the field, and the standards are determined in cooperation with major health care organizations, ensuring that programs are assessed in comparison to the state-of-the-art in the field today.
Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Manager Career Outlook
With the overall state of global health in tatters, it’s not a big leap to guess that disease prevention careers are going to be in high demand in coming decades.
You don’t have to look any further than Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data for medical and health services managers, the category that includes disease prevention administrators, which estimates job growth hitting a staggering 32 percent between 2019 and 2029. And that’s including all jobs in the category, some of which may be negatively impacted by the pandemic. It’s a fair bet to assume that the smaller circle of disease prevention managers is going to be in much higher demand for the foreseeable future.
BLS also showed a median salary of $100,980 in the category as of 2019, with the top ten percent, those with the most education and experience, routinely making more than $189,000 per year.
Who Is Hiring Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Managers?
The major employers for these management roles are non-profits and state, city, and federal agencies. You might find a job handling outreach to the Hispanic community for a state-level kidney foundation, or working overseas in disease surveillance for the Centers for Disease Control. Major healthcare centers also have prominent roles for disease prevention and health promotion. A health coach, for example, can work alongside medical providers and behavioral specialists in some rehabilitation programs, offering advice and oversight in preventative care and acting as a sort of translator for clinicians in reaching out to patients to encourage healthier behaviors. And almost all major hospitals today have significant infection prevention departments that need expert management in coordinating disease prevention activities ranging from deep-cleaning to researching methods to reduce aerosol-generating surgical procedures.
While public health agencies and related non-profits get most of the limelight in rolling out and managing big disease prevention projects, there are many job opportunities in private industry for administrators in this specialty area as well.
Health has become a big topic in corporate culture these days, with many companies actively promoting healthier practices among employees, even offering incentives for participation. This emphasis on preventative health and widespread health promotion efforts will likely continue, especially as cost containment remains a focus in U.S. healthcare.
You’ll find niche roles that count on your expertise in industries such as:
As all employers and insurers come to understand the financial benefits of a healthier and less vulnerable workforce, health promotion administrators are seen as important investments. Many high-tech companies represent a huge growth market in this field; as of October, 2020, Amazon alone had more than 115 openings in environmental health and safety positions worldwide.
That kind of variety gives disease prevention administrators maybe the greatest range of potential positions of any specialty in healthcare administration. And with the right education, any of them are yours for the taking.
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