Healthcare System: Medical Providers and Public Health Professionals and Their Role in Healthcare

Recently there has been much discussion on the credentials and expertise of the people creating public health policies and mandates pertaining to the health and wellbeing of the community.  During the COVID-19 pandemic the public has been questioning those in public service exercising their authority and political powers to create mandates restricting the civil liberties of the people and either restricting or closing businesses.  Even worsening a bad situation, the media has resorted to “gas lighting” the public creating more doubt and suspicion in the intentions of many public health professionals.

The healthcare system possesses many professionals who are among a diverse and well-educated group (Shi & Singh, 2012).  With the many professionals in the healthcare community it is important understand their degrees and credentials to better understand their role, how they differ and how they share similar goals in preventing diseases and promote a healthy living. Although everyone in healthcare is important, especially nurses, nurse practitioners, and other ancillary personnel; this focus will be on the following professionals: Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO), and Public Health Professional (Dr.PH/MPH/MSPH).

Medical Doctor (MD)

Physicians who earned their Doctor of Medicine degree are trained in treating their patients using allopathic medicine, or a more traditional method using medications or surgery.  In the United States, those who hope to obtain a doctor of medicine degree must complete their undergraduate degree and take the Medical College Admission exam, known as the MCAT®.  Once a candidate is accepted into medical school they typically are required to complete a four year course prior to entering into a Residency program.  Depending on the specialization and institution, a residency curriculum could be anywhere from three to five years.  While studying and training for their MD, their main focus is allopathic medicine or the “active intervention to produce a counteracting reaction in an attempt to neutralize the effects of a disease” (Shi & Singh, 2012).  In other words, the MD is focused on treating patients by actively targeting the disease.

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

A Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO, follow very similar curriculum as their MD counterparts; in fact, there is little difference between the two.  The slight difference is the DO is focused on osteopathic medicine focusing on preventative treatments.  A DO should not be confused with a chiropractor (DC degree) whose only focus is to provide structural diagnosis and outpatient treatment (Marino, 1983).  Similar to an MD, a DO can provide a full spectrum of primary medical services.  In contrast, the DO is focused on preventative medicine and holistic care such as dietary and environmental factors as part of their treatment. Where the MD is focused on treating the disease to cure the body, the DO is focused on treating the body to rid it from the disease.  Regardless of their distinct focus, they both have the same goal which is to keep patients healthy and rid them from disease.  A DO would typically be found in a profession such as an internist or family medicine doctor.

Public Health Professionals (Dr.PH, MPH, MSPH)

Unlike their MD and DO colleagues, Public Health professionals do not treat patients nor do they provide any medical services.  These professionals review and interpret medical data and information to promote health and wellness in the community.  Public Health Professionals focus on a wide spectrum of specializations such as behavioral health, health education, health promotions, and health administration.  Where the MD and DO focus on treating individual patients, the Public Health Professional take studies from medical professionals to create public policies to prevent diseases within the community as a whole.  This may include creating campaigns against smoking to prevent lung disease, exercise and a healthy diet to prevent or combat obesity, or vaccine awareness to prevent the spread of a disease.  Public Health Professionals may also look at the environment and work with legislatures and health care professionals to create an infrastructure to prevent illnesses such as contaminated drinking water, air pollution, or other environmental dangers that could cause illnesses requiring medical care by a physician.

In addition to these three professionals, there many other ancillary providers who also assist in preventative care and treatment of individuals and the community such as therapists and social workers. With the healthcare system being complexed, it is important to understand their roles and duties in treating patients and the community.  A physician’s role is to treat the patient, a nurse’s role is to advocate for the patient, and the public health professional is to communicate health awareness to the community as a whole. Ultimately all healthcare professionals share a common goal, promoting wellness for individuals and the community.


Marino, R. V. (1983). Significant Differences in Services by Osteopathic Physicians and Chiropractors. American Journal of Public Health 73, no. 2, 215.

Shi, L., & Singh, D. A. (2012). Delivering Health Care in America: A Systems Approach. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Author: Edmund J. Martinez, MBA, MPH, PMP