Public Health

How Does Social Work Relate to Public Health?

How Does Social Work Relate to Public Health?
Earning a dual master's degree in social work and public health can qualify you to design or change entire social service programs. Image from Pexels
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella April 27, 2022

Public health social work addresses public health policy advocacy and research as well as the delivery of community health services and behavioral healthcare. These social workers are found in community healthcare settings, government agencies, and nonprofits.

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Social workers have collaborated with public health officials since the profession’s early days, when pioneers like Ida Cannon fought to improve social welfare at the community level. Though the two fields are not as close today, they still share a strong bond.

There are instances where the bond is strong and clear. For example: many public libraries now arrange for social workers to offer assistance to library patrons on-site. Library patrons frequently consult the library for assistance on a variety of matters (e.g., job/employment resources), some of them beyond the scope of most librarians’ expertise. These can include public health issues; social workers in libraries can assist patrons with psychosocial issues directly related to their well-being, for instance. They can also address the gaps in local social services and access to medical and mental healthcare.

Library-based social workers offer many services, including helping homeless and low-income clients access healthcare, mental healthcare, substance abuse programs, shelter, childcare, food assistance programs, and other social safety net entitlements. The initiative is reminiscent of social work’s early days when professionals worked in settlement houses, delivering a host of services to immigrants and working-class families to promote social reform and child welfare.

Earning a dual master’s degree in social work and public health can qualify you to design or change entire social service programs. These public health social workers fight for social justice at community (mezzo) and system (macro) levels. Clinical social workers help their clients access healthcare, while public health social workers propose changes to health policy.

If helping more than a few clients at a time sounds good, read on. This article further explores the question how does social work relate to public health? It also answers others, including:

  • How does social work support public health?
  • What is a dual MSW/MPH degree?
  • What are the top schools that offer a dual MSW/MPH master’s?

How does social work relate to public health?

In their paper titled “A History of Social Work in Public Health, Betty J. Ruth and Jamie Wyatt Marshall recount how public health and social work both matured during the 1900s with the shared objective of eradicating illnesses and addressing social issues (such as child labor). During that time, social workers worked in settlement houses to battle public health issues like infectious diseases and poor child health. Social workers also convinced medical professionals to allow social workers to help patients with the psychological impact of illnesses.

Among their successes, these social workers helped bring about a steep reduction in infant mortality. Using epidemiology and advocacy, social workers convinced President William Howard Taft’s administration to establish the Children’s Bureau in 1912, the first US federal agency (or government agency anywhere) “to focus exclusively on improving the lives of children and families” (which now is part of the US Department of Health & Human Services).


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How social workers support public health

Ruth and Marshall assert that public health and social work share less of a connection today, but they’re not entirely separate. Clinical social work—providing direct social services—can improve a community’s well-being, according to Jennifer Van Pelt in the Social Work Today article “Social Work and Public Health—Perfect Partners.” Clinical social workers have helped mitigate the AIDS crisis and improve child welfare. Other initiatives that enhance social well-being include connecting clients with agency assistance to address mental health issues, teaching clients to advocate for themselves, and coordinating with other professionals about client care plans.

Do you need a dual MSW/MPH degree to be a public health social worker?

While social workers don’t need a dual degree to impact public health, an MSW/MPH program can prepare graduates to design community initiatives and hold leadership positions.

Social work public health jobs (and what they pay)

Earning this dual degree allows you to follow career paths in both fields. Degree holders frequently work for government agencies, community organizations, and nonprofits.

Dual degree-holders may work in the fillowing roles:

Social and community service manager

With a focus on creating and evaluating policies, social and community service managers work with community leaders to allocate resources and assess the effectiveness of clinicians. They supervise policy implementation, rather than perform direct social work practice. They may work in a particular sector, such as mental health or substance abuse, or with a specific population, like people who are homeless or the elderly. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for these professionals is $74,000 per year.

Social work planner

These professionals design and lobby for social work programs. Like managers, they research, evaluate, and create policies on a community (or larger) scale. Planners don’t typically implement policy, though they work with clinicians and managers. They are far more likely to work on the legal side of social work at think tanks, law firms, human rights groups, government agencies, and universities.

According to Glassdoor, the average social work planner earns close to $70,000 per year. Their earning potential is much higher than most social workers, including those who provide therapy in private practice. Planners at the upper end of the expected salary range earn nearly $230,000 per year.

What is a dual MSW/MPH degree?

Dual degree programs teach the science behind public health and social work. With this dual degree, you’ll get experience looking at problems through clinical intervention (social work) and societal (public health) lenses.

How long does it take to earn a dual MSW/MPH degree?

How longit takes to earn your degrees depends on the program and whether you study full-time or part-time. Tulane University’s Master of Social Work (MSW) and Master of Public Health (MPH) in Community Health Sciences takes only five consecutive semesters (summers included); other programs can take longer. The New York University dual degree focuses on similar subjects and runs for three years (a more common timeframe).

Admission requirements/prerequisites

Admissions requirements vary by program. At Tulane, students apply to the School of Social Work and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine separately. Both have straightforward applications. The guidelines for admissions are a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts or a similar field and at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA, plus letters of recommendation and other traditional admissions requirements. Though a Bachelor’s in Social Work is not necessary for entrance to an MSW program, having one can qualify you for a (quicker) advanced standing pathway.

While Tulane suggests applying to both programs before embarking on the MSW, you can apply to the public health program during your first semester. Not every school works this way. For instance, Boston University students begin coursework in one program (usually social work) before applying to the other.


Dual degree programs typically start with MSW coursework and then incorporate MPH courses. At Tulane, you’ll learn how to conduct interventions, evaluate programs, and fight for social justice at the community, family, and individual levels. MPH coursework focuses on subjects like epidemiology, grant writing, program design, and biostatistics. You’ll learn the research methods needed to create and evaluate programs. In the MSW program, you’ll study social work foundations and learn research methods, but without the additional public health focus.

Every social work student completes fieldwork as part of their social work education. Tulane requires 948 hours. NYU students complete as many as 1,200 hours.


While traditional MSW programs allow you to specialize in social work areas like gerontology or child welfare, a dual degree program typically is the specialization. However, you may still pursue a niche focus during your degree. At Tulane, students identify the best coursework for their chosen careers alongside an advisor. Most programs also allow students to hone their focus in the form of a capstone project.

What are the top schools that offer a dual MSW/MPH master’s?

Well-regarded schools with dual degree programs include:

  • Boston University
  • Columbia University
  • Fordham University
  • New York University
  • Tulane University
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Southern California

(Updated on February 23, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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