Public Health Social Work Degrees and Careers – Becoming a Public Health Social Worker [2024]

Last Updated: June 23, 2024

What is a Public Health Social Worker?

A public health social worker is a multi-disciplinary professional who draws on knowledge and skills from the fields of both social work and public health.

The mission of a public health social worker is to improve the health and well-being of the individuals and communities they serve. The social work dimension of the role leads to a focus on intervention at the individual level while public health works toward prevention and policy-setting activities at the community level.

In practical terms, this dual perspective leads to the role operating as a bridge between individuals and communities, health and social care providers, and policymakers.

Public health social workers use their contacts and knowledge on behalf of individuals to help them navigate an often-complex support system. In parallel, they build on their insight into how health issues impact individuals and communities to put in place prevention strategies and to inform and drive public policy-setting.

What Does a Public Health Social Worker Do?

Public health social workers provide help, guidance, and advocacy for vulnerable individuals who are dealing with a wide range of health issues and the wider social consequences of these problems.

The types of individual and family situations that public health social workers may encounter include teen pregnancy, eating disorders, bereavement, disability, terminal illness, mental health issues, and organ transplant.

They may also develop a care plan for elderly individuals who can no longer care for themselves, coordinate support services for a patient being discharged from the hospital or organize counseling and rehabilitation services for a recovering substance abuser.

The public health social worker will refer patients to assistance programs, provide reports to support their applications for benefits or services, help individuals maintain treatment strategies, and follow up on progress regularly.

In all these scenarios, public health social workers provide practical and advisory support to individuals and their families, meet with representatives from a variety of healthcare agencies and other social care providers, and complete necessary paperwork.

Related Reading: Child Welfare Social Worker Career

Where public health social workers identify common health problems across their communities, they collect and analyze data to understand exactly which segments of the population are experiencing the issue and what the causes might be.

Once they have formed a detailed understanding, they will go on to organize initiatives such as community outreach, education programs, local clinics, to address it.

For example, if they identify that limited knowledge of appropriate nutrition and exposure to unfamiliar ingredients is affecting the health of a particular immigrant population, they may organize shopping and cooking classes.

Where appropriate, public health social workers will draw on their detailed knowledge of particular populations and healthcare issues to contribute to public policy setting.

For example, if they find themselves working with a community where environmental contamination is significantly contributing to healthcare issues they may highlight the problem and provide evidence to local government agencies in support of greater control of pollutants.

Public health social workers may also find themselves working with communities experiencing a significant problem or disaster. An outbreak of a serious communicable disease, a major weather event, or a humanitarian crisis may all precipitate a need for rapid and wide-ranging responses in which the public health social worker will play a pivotal role in supporting people in obtaining access to healthcare and counseling.

Where Does a Public Health Social Worker Work?

There are a wide variety of settings and agencies in which public health social workers perform their duties. Some roles are attached to healthcare facilities such as hospitals, nursing and residential care units, medical clinics, mental health clinics, and home healthcare agencies.

Local, state, and federal government agencies also frequently employ public health social workers, as do schools and universities and correctional facilities.

Non-profits, community development organizations, and family services agencies frequently engage a range of social workers, including public health social workers, to support the achievement of their organizational missions.

Many roles include a requirement to work evenings and weekends and to be on call. Therefore, private practice is often an attractive option once an individual has built up sufficient experience and has developed a specialization in one or more aspects of their role.

Why Do We Need Public Health Social Workers?

Healthy individuals and communities are happier and more productive than unhealthy individuals and communities. Continued ill-health is costly for individuals and society.

Vaccinations, sanitation, control of environmental pollutants, and workplace safety are all social health initiatives that today we take for granted regarding their contribution to the positive social and economic outcomes of a healthier population.

Modern healthcare issues are often complex and multi-dimensional, and the unique skills and insight of public health social workers are needed to help discover the causes and solutions to 21st-century health issues such as obesity, addiction, and depression that defy simple attempts at resolution. Left unchecked, these widespread problems are as damaging to the overall health of our community as any plague or epidemic.

At the same time, the framework for providing health interventions and support to individuals and communities in need is itself complex, bureaucratic, and cumbersome. Public health social workers act as expert guides through this maze to ensure people can get the help that they require.

What are the Educational and Licensure Requirements for Public Health Social Workers?

A four-year first degree in social work, or a closely allied social science such as psychology, is the usual first step for an aspiring public health social worker.

The typical Bachelor’s Social Work (BSW) curriculum incorporates studies of human behavior and an overview of social welfare policy. At least 400 hours of clinical practicums at a social service agency will complement the student’s exploration of theoretical frameworks for intervention strategies.

With the growing emphasis on research and data analysis within the profession, the typical BSW curriculum is also increasingly likely to include required courses covering social work research techniques and statistical analysis.

All public health social workers must be licensed through the social work board of their state. Requirements for licensing vary by state with the completion of a BSW degree representing the minimum requirement.  Individual state requirements for licensure can be found through the Association of Social Work Boards.

In some states, licensure requires a master’s qualification. There are two main options for the public health social worker, a Master’s Social Work degree (MSW) or a Master’s Public Health (MPH) degree. Both programs are typically two years in length. However, holders of an existing BSW degree may qualify for advanced standing allowing them to reduce the length of the program to one year.

Direct entry is also available for individuals who did not gain their first degree in social work. A dual degree MPH/MSW option is also available. A typical curriculum might include topics such as biostatistics, social work ethics, research protocols, and health economics.

Master’s students also typically choose a specialism. Examples might include mental health, children, and families, or the treatment of alcohol and drug dependency.

Alternate Career Path

The next step for many MSW graduates drawn to the individual intervention aspects of their role is to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This is achieved by evidencing suitable clinical experience. These professionals are considered qualified to provide individual and group counseling and psychotherapy.

MPH graduates and MSW graduates whose interests lie more in research and influencing public health outcomes across broader populations may go on to pursue a doctorate. Studies at this level are primarily self-directed and focus upon original work and research aimed at the biological, social, and economic foundations of public health.

What is a Social Work and Public Health Dual Degree Program?

Dual degree programs are interdisciplinary programs which draw upon theories, frameworks, research, and practice from two fields of knowledge. At the completion of the program, the student will earn two degrees, one in each academic discipline.

Dual degree programs are offered at most academic levels, however in social work and public health the dual degree option is typically offered at the master’s level and leads to an award of Master of Social Work (MSW) and Master of Public Health (MPH).

A dual degree program may usually be completed in approximately three years on a full-time basis or four or more years on a part-time basis. As several courses count as credits to both degrees, this means the degrees can be completed more quickly by taking them together than could be achieved by taking them in sequence.

Master’s level classes are often available online with only limited requirements for students to visit campus for occasional seminars and workshops. The program is also likely to include 100-150 hours of fieldwork performed at both the population and clinical levels.

Although each MSW/MPH is slightly different in its curriculum and format, all such programs are broadly designed to prepare professionals to analyze, understand, and address health-related concerns at the individual, community, and population level.

The dual degree allows for critical contemporary problems such as substance abuse, mental and behavioral health, welfare, and access to health care to be examined at both the micro (clinical) level and the macro (social impacts and policy) level.

In line with single award master’s degrees in social work and public health, the majority of MSW/MPH dual degrees allow the student to select electives to narrow the focus of their studies. Typical concentration areas include child and family; organization and community practice; mental health; epidemiology; health policy and occupational health sciences.

How Much Does a Public Health Social Worker Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual wage for all types of social workers in May 2022 was $61,190. Healthcare social workers earn more than social workers overall with median pay of $60,840. The range of pay is relatively broad. The most highly paid earn more than $82,820 while the lowest paid earn less than $37,000.

Where a social worker is employed also has an impact on how much they can earn. Social workers employed in hospitals typically make the most with a median salary of $61,190. Social workers who focus on individuals and families usually earn the lowest median wage of $46,640.

Public health social workers may increase their earning potential by gaining an advanced degree, obtaining clinical experience, specializing in specific types of social work, and advancing into managerial and supervisory positions.

What Careers are Similar to Public Health Social Worker?

Medical Social Worker

A medical social worker typically works in a hospital or another medical setting such as a rehabilitation center, hospice, or mental health facility.

Medical social workers are often part of an interdisciplinary team that includes doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other administrative and medical professionals. Their primary focus is on providing support to individuals and their families in situations that are likely to require major adjustment such as severe and terminal illness, transplant surgery, disablement, and bereavement.

Health and Wellness Manager

Health and wellness managers work in settings such as corporations and universities and are responsible for planning and delivering strategies to improve the health of the people who are part of that organization. Their role includes identifying needs, planning out initiatives, ensuring those initiatives are delivered, and measuring their effectiveness.


The role of an epidemiologist is to identify public health problems and study patterns to determine the cause of illness. They can then advise public health policy makers on how to improve health and reduce the spread of illness. They are specialists in using data analysis to track disease vectors.

Community Health Worker

Health education, health promotion, and disease prevention at the community level is the focus of a community health worker. They often connect individuals to health services, advocate on behalf of their communities about the provision of health services and provide informal advice and support to community members.

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