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A public health physician is an expert in helping people to become healthier. He/she works not only with individuals, but also with families, groups, organisations and entire communities.
The role involves a range of tasks – how much the specialist does of each depends on his/her specific position. Common duties include creating and presenting programs that promote public health; writing and distributing publications in response to public health issues, such as substance abuse and vaccines; conducting studies and analyses of the effectiveness of public health programs; providing recommendations to individuals, families, organisations and communities; and developing and implementing policy at government level. Public health physicians can choose to focus on research, education, promotion, giving advice and/or a combination of roles. Their job might be far-reaching, affecting entire regions or states or even nations, or localised, focusing on a specific community.
The path to becoming a general medicine specialist in public health starts with undertaking study in medicine. In Australia, there are two options available. One is a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), a double degree available to school-leavers, which takes 5 to 6 years to complete. Another is a general entry medical degree, available to individuals who hold an undergraduate degree in any discipline, which takes 4 years. Upon graduating, students must train at a hospital for 12 months or longer.
The next stage is specific training in public health. The three-year course takes place through the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, which is part of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and involves rotations through a range of contexts and positions related to public health.
Steps for Becoming a Public Health Physician in Australia
Refer to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) for more information.
Each and every doctor practising in Australia, whether trained in Australia or overseas, must register with the Medical Board of Australia (MBA) and with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
To succeed as a public health physician, an individual must have an outstanding work ethic and a strong commitment to the field. Training provides the specialist with an extensive knowledge base, but this must be continually developed throughout one’s career. New challenges – from virus endemics to drug problems in particular communities – are always appearing and it is up to the public health specialist to provide guidance, leadership and advice.
Given that a role in public health usually involves a great deal of writing, reporting and speaking, a specialist should have excellent communication skills in every area. He/she should be skilful and confident when it comes to setting up studies, gathering data and conducting rigorous analyses.
Working in public health often involves cooperating in a team environment. Specialists must be willing to listen to others, express opinions assertively yet fairly, consider an issue from a range of perspectives and share information openly. It’s a challenging yet stimulating career path that has the potential to impact on thousands, if not millions, of lives.