Population Health vs. Public Health: Differences Explained

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Population health and public health both strive to improve the health of the communities they serve. But, the size and focus of these two fields often differs.

[Featured Image]:  A health care worker, working at his desktop computer, is analyzing the charts of a patient.

Both population health and public health focus on improving the health of communities by providing them with the care and information they need to stay healthy

While public health tends to focus on the public at large and population health pays greater attention to more narrowly-defined communities, both fields are concerned with educating the public, disease control and prevention, and identifying the social determinants of health to expand primary care access to those in need.  

If you’re someone who wants to pursue a career in health care that will positively impact your community, then you might consider a career in either population health or public health. 

In this article, you’ll learn more about each of these important health care fields, what differentiates them, and the jobs that define them. At the end, you’ll also explore courses you might take to help you start on the path to a career today. 

Public health vs. population health: differences and definitions 

Public health and population health are intimately related to one another – and are often even used interchangeably. But, despite their similarities, the two terms typically focus on different populations, even when those populations overlap with one another. Here’s what you need to know about each of these terms and how they differ:  

Public health definition 

Public health is a subset of health care focused on improving the health outcomes and overall well-being of the public at large rather than individual patients. Used primarily to describe the health practices and policies of local and federal governments, public health encompasses a wide range of duties, responsibilities, and jobs that all work to ensure positive health outcomes for the public and all the various communities comprising it.

While some jobs within public health require you to research within laboratory settings, other public health work allows you to interact directly with the public or collaborate with others to craft public policy. 

Read more: What Is Public Health? Your Career Guide

Population health definition 

Population health is a subset of public health focused on improving the well-being and health outcomes of a specific group of people or community within the public at large. While population health and public health are sometimes used interchangeably – and can sometimes even focus on the same group – health care professionals working in population health usually focus their efforts on very specific groups defined by such common demographic factors as geographic location, ethnicity, age, or a shared disability. 

Much like public health professionals, population health professionals can work in either research environments or directly with community members to address their health concerns. 

Read more: What Is Population Health? (+ Why It Matters)

Jobs and functions 

There is a wide range of positions within the fields of public and population health. If improving your community by researching the factors that influence health inequities or preventing the spread of disease by educating the public sounds enjoyable to you, then you might consider a career as either a population or public health professional. 

Whether you prefer to focus on the public at large or a specific population within it, here are some jobs to consider: 

Read more: 7 Public Health Careers (+ How to Get Started)

Explore health with Coursera 

A career in both population and public health requires a solid educational foundation to ensure that you provide the best care possible to those in need. Whether you’re looking to jump into the field by getting a master’s or just want to learn more about it, Coursera has a flexible, cost-effective option for you.  

Imperial College London’s Foundations of Public Health Practice Specialization empower course takers to reflect on and cultivate the behaviors they require to become an effective public health professional – whether as an academic, practitioner, clinician, manager, or leader.

Their Global Master of Public Health (GMPH), meanwhile, prepares degree seekers for a career in public health by training them in biostatistics, epidemiology, health systems, health economics, population health improvement, and more while honing their research skills by exploring issues affecting their own community.

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