University of Sourthern California


10 Emerging Public Health Issues of 2023

A young e-cigarette user exhales a cloud of smoke.Public health is about more than just responding to health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Government public health agencies and nonprofit organizations run programs aimed at protecting health, promoting well-being and preventing disease. They use their public health authority and knowledge to take on social, environmental and economic challenges that cause chronic and acute diseases, increase mortality rates, and lower overall health and well-being.

Following are 10 emerging public health issues that have grown to new levels or have experts concerned.

1. Public Health Authority

According to a 2021 report by the Network for Public Health Law, 15 states have proposed or passed laws that would undermine public health authority. This legislation comes in the wake of the controversies over mask requirements and lockdowns as COVID spread across the country. These laws would ban local and state governments from requiring masks, closing businesses or requiring quarantine, among other restrictions. The impact of these laws may be dire, affecting the following.

  • Community spread. Highly communicable diseases will spread more easily, causing widespread sickness and death.
  • Loss of expertise. Legislatures that take over public health responses may not have the understanding or knowledge to respond appropriately to a health threat.
  • Slow response time. Time is of the essence when it comes to public health threats. By removing the ability of agencies to act, a disease can gain a foothold in a population.
  • Reduced health equity. As illustrated during the pandemic, COVID disproportionately impacted communities of color. Preventing laws that would reduce disease spread will continue to impact these communities the hardest.

2. Public Health Workforce Shortage

The public health workforce is made up of two components: public health professionals who work for government agencies, health care nonprofits and research institutions; and doctors, nurses and other clinical providers. Both components have been impacted by worker shortages.

Public Health Employees

According to the 2021 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey conducted by public health think tank de Beaumont, 44% of state and local public health workers said they planned to retire in the next five years. The majority of respondents said their decision to leave public health was prompted by the backlash against public health initiatives during the COVID-19 pandemic.


There is a growing shortage of clinical providers. Some 34% of nurses surveyed by health care staffing agency Incredible Health said they planned to leave nursing in 2022. More nurses are entering retirement age, and there aren’t enough nursing programs to train new nurses, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Similarly, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034.


Shortages are a public health issue that makes it more difficult to operate disease prevention and other public health and safety programs. Provider shortages will impact access to and the quality of health care. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 98 million Americans live in a designated Health Practitioner Shortage Area (HPSA).

3. Public Health Spending

The U.S. spends around $3.6 trillion annually on health care, but only about 3% of that is for public health, safety and disease prevention. Programs that promote wellness can prevent individuals from requiring more expensive medical intervention. The 2022 Build Back Better Act includes funding for local health departments, emergency response, expansion of laboratories for disease monitoring and testing and training for additional public health workers.

4. Health Equity

The disparities in health and well-being due to race, gender and socioeconomic factors has long been a stubborn challenge for public health experts. People who lack access to preventive health care and treatment for chronic and acute diseases suffer higher rates of disease, disability and death, and have less opportunity to live to their full potential. Public health initiatives at the local, state and federal levels share the goal of achieving health equity. Examples of health equity initiatives include:

  • Providing health information in different languages
  • Low-cost preventive health services
  • Mobile health screenings
  • Flexible appointment scheduling, or telehealth
  • Focus on wellness to prevent higher-cost medical care
  • Being mindful of cultural differences

5. E-Cigarettes

When manufacturers introduced e-cigarettes in 2006, the devices were initially marketed as a way to quit smoking. They quickly became a method of ingesting tobacco and other drugs, such as marijuana and fentanyl. The use of e-cigarettes became widespread among teens. The dangers of e-cigarettes are many, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They have caused young people to become addicted to tobacco. They facilitate the abuse of illicit substances, which can lead to overdoses. They also can cause lung damage. A nationwide campaign to combat e-cigarette use among children is one example of a successful public health intervention.

6. Climate Change

Drought. Floods. Violent weather. Debilitating heat. Wildfires. Climate change is a public health issue that has already caused death and disruption in many locations around the world. In the U.S., state and local governments can take several steps to combat the impact of climate change on their residents. For instance, some ways that governments can help keep people safe and healthy include establishing urban forest programs to help cool cities, being prepared to fight waterborne pathogens and understanding how air pollution increases cases of asthma.

7. The Environment

As with climate change, the environment has a significant impact on public health. In fact, environmental conditions are among the social determinants of health that can predict a person’s health and well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers air pollution to be a significant cause of illness and death, and it mostly impacts low- and middle-income populations. But other environmental factors impact everyone. The presence of PFAS, a long-lasting plastic, is found in most people. It has been linked to cancer, high blood pressure, decreased fertility and increased cholesterol.


Millions of people have died of HIV/AIDS, and nearly 40 million people around the world live with the disease. It continues to be endemic in many regions. While drug treatments are available, they are expensive, and many people lack access. There’s no cure and no vaccine. Despite global efforts, the disease continues to spread. Research into a vaccine is ongoing.

9. Rural Health

People living in rural areas face a number of public health challenges. They often live in provider-shortage areas and lack access to primary care doctors, specialists and hospitals. People in remote regions often have to drive hours to receive care, or to give birth. The opioid epidemic, while widespread throughout the country, has ravaged rural communities. Telehealth is one solution to the provider shortage, as it can help monitor patients with chronic illnesses and allow people to receive care at home.

10. Data Privacy

Data privacy may seem an unlikely public health issue. However, public health experts say data privacy is an essential human right. Many consumers may not be aware that when they use a mobile wellness app, their data can end up in the hands of companies that don’t follow data privacy laws. At the same time, public health data — when it has personal identifying information removed — can help track and fight diseases and identify food-borne illnesses, among other issues. How to use data to benefit patients, while also ensuring that health data is protected, will continue to be a public health challenge.

Public Health — The Challenge Awaits

Public health officials understand the challenges they face in keeping people safe and healthy. From the growing attacks on public health authority to making sure all people have access to essential health care, the work they do is tough but necessary.

The Master of Public Health online at the Keck School of Medicine of USC provides a modern approach to public health management. Learn more about the program to find out how USC prepares students for rewarding careers in health care.

Recommended Readings

How Harm Reduction Services Improve Health Equity and Save Lives

What Can You Do with a Master’s Degree in Public Health?

3 Global Public Health Threats


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “Nursing Faculty Shortage”

Association of American Medical Colleges, “AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage”

American Medical Association, “Privacy Concerns Grow as More Health Data Goes Mobile During Pandemic”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Equity

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Effects of a National Campaign on Youth Beliefs and Perceptions About Electronic Cigarettes and Smoking”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How Data Authority Improves Public Health”

The Commonwealth Fund, “Bolstering the Public Health Infrastructure in the Wake of COVID-19”

De Beaumont, 2021 Findings

Environmental Protection Agency, “Public Health Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change”

Environmental Protection Agency, “Our Current Understanding of the Human Health and Environmental Risks of PFAS”

Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic”

Health Resources & Services Administration, “Health Workforce Shortage Areas”

Incredible Health, “STUDY: 34% of Nurses Plan to Leave their Current Role by the End of 2022”

McKinsey & Company, “Care for the Caretakers: Building the Global Public Health Workforce”

Medical News Today, “Health Equity: Meaning, Promotion, and Training”

National Institute of Justice, “The Evolution and Impact of Electronic Cigarettes”

The Network for Public Health Law, “Proposed Limits on Public Health Authority: Dangerous for Public Health”

Rural Health Information Hub, Telehealth Use in Rural Health Care

Trust for America’s Health, “The Impact of Chronic Underfunding on America’s Public Health System: Trends, Risks, and Recommendations, 2020”

World Health Organization, Air Pollution