A department of public health is a government agency in charge of looking after issues related to the overall health of the public. These agencies may be run by a federal government, or some smaller subdivision. For example, in the United States, a department of public health usually refers to an agency run by a state or local government, such as a county. Major responsibilities often include tallying health statistics, recommending public health policy, licensing and oversight of physicians, disease control, and food and health inspections.
Licensing physicians is considered a public health issue and very closely controlled because of the problems that could result from unqualified individuals practicing medicine. Those who want to practice medicine in a particular state or region must go to the proper licensing authority. A minimum level of testing and education will likely be required. Further, the department of public health will also make sure the physician follows good practices and ethical guidelines.
In addition to licensing physicians, the department of public health is typically one of the first lines of defense when a potentially dangerous disease breaks out. In most cases, the department will have recommended certain public health policy initiatives to help control the disease, including emergency vaccinations, quarantine, and educational outreach. In the United States, these departments will work closely with the national Centers for Disease Control to test samples and monitor the situation.
The department of public health is also often responsible for food and safety inspections. These include oversight of both restaurants and grocery stores to ensure safe practices are taking place. Inspection documents are open to the public and many departments have such information readily available online for those who are interested. The main purpose of such inspections is to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses such as salmonella and E. coli.
In order for an issue to come under the jurisdiction or concern of the department of public health, it must be serious enough where the general well-being of the public is thought to be at risk. Minor health problems and rare genetic disorders are two examples where a department will not likely have much of a role. Statistics may still be collected, but often that is as far as the public involvement will go.
For those interested in public health careers, there are a number of different disciplines that could be chosen. Food inspectors, investigators, medical service providers, and administrators all will find opportunities in public health departments. Common majors for public health professionals include chemistry, biology, medicine, and business administration.