101 Careers in Public HealthIn this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!

Job Description:

“Medical officers” are physicians who provide medical expertise for city, state, or federal agencies. Medical officers offer specialized knowledge of disease and treatment that can be essential to making good public health decisions. A medical officer’s specific job can include doing direct medical care as part of a government program, but often it involves big picture work such as developing guidelines and policies, giving advice about the safety of new technologies and products, conducting research on disease prevention and control, making decisions about government grants, or providing guidance for epidemiologic surveillance. In infectious disease control, there are medical officers who study how infections spread, and then help create recommendations to prevent or control outbreaks. Some help design and carry out disease control programs. Other jobs include helping evaluate antibiotics or other products used to battle infectious disease, participating in infectious disease surveillance and the interpretation of epidemiologic data, and carrying out research. There are medical officers not just in infectious disease control but in many areas of public health, including maternal and child health, chronic disease control, injury prevention, and global health. Medical officers often enjoy reasonable work hours in comfortable surroundings, although some jobs include emergency response after hours.

Education and Certification:

A medical officer must have an MD or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree and usually must be licensed to practice medicine. Requirements regarding residency training and other preparation vary according to the needs of each job. For some jobs, earning an MPH or becoming board-certified in preventive medicine can make a candidate more competitive. For others, expertise in a relevant clinical specialty is essential.

Core Competencies and Skills:

  • Good critical thinking skills
  • Ability to think flexibly
  • Interest in continuing to learn new information and skills
  • Willingness to follow government regulations and cope with red tape
  • At least a basic grounding in epidemiology and biostatistics
  • Understanding of relevant public health regulations and the structure of health-related agencies
  • Medical knowledge appropriate to the specific job


Medical officers are usually paid well, although not in keeping with the salaries of surgeons or other highly paid specialists. Typical salaries with the federal government range from about $90,000 to about $150,000. Federal workers also receive generous benefits packages.


The agencies within HHS employ a large number of medical officers to do work related to public health. In addition to jobs at federal government agencies, there are similar opportunities with state and local health departments, international agencies, and other organizations, although the job title may be different. (The term “medical officer” is also used in other contexts that do not necessarily have to do with public health.)

Employment Outlook:

Several states report a shortage of public health physicians or expect a shortage in the near future. Most health departments have jobs that are designated specifically for physicians, and at any given moment there are many listings for medical officers on the Web site USAJOBS.gov. Finding the job you want can take time, but public health doctors can enjoy broad opportunities for advancement and for lateral moves once they have entered the system. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps can also provide steady employment and a long-term career.

For Further Information:

There is no single organization for public health medical officers, but the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM) (www.acpm.org) is a good resource.