What are the pressing public health topics for research today? To find out, public health researchers start by examining health data. Because infectious diseases and chronic conditions evolve, researchers also follow trends.
When researchers determine which public health topics they want to investigate, they use specific techniques to collect and analyze health data. This can include surveys, interviews, focus groups, observational studies or randomized controlled trials.
Because each method has strengths and limitations, public health researchers consider which method suits their specific research focus best. For example, a researcher may choose to interview people in certain populations to identify the root causes of mental health disorders. In another example, an observational method may help track the spread of an infectious disease in a community.
Consider the following key public health topics for research in 2023 and beyond.
Public Health Research Topics for 2023
Every researcher’s goal is to uncover important information that can be used to determine potential solutions to help address specific health issues.
Public health researchers consider the potential impact of their research on public health policy and practice. For example, the easier it is for policymakers to understand a research finding, the easier it is for them to use it to make informed decisions. Moreover, if a study finds, for example, that a particular vaccine is effective, policymakers can use this evidence to support broader vaccine interventions.
The following are examples of public health research topics with implications for public health policy in 2023.
1. Post-COVID-19 Conditions
Post-COVID-19 conditions, known as long COVID-19, have become a significant public health issue. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), up to 23 million Americans have been affected by these conditions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes long COVID as ongoing health problems occurring weeks to years after an initial infection of COVID-19. Common symptoms of long COVID include fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, joint pain and cognitive impairment.
A primary challenge is understanding the factors that cause long COVID. Research in this area can help determine the condition’s prevalence, severity, clinical features and risk factors for developing it. For example, what role do age, sex and comorbidities, such as diabetes, play in developing long COVID?
Understanding these risk factors could help identify high-risk individuals, identify targeted interventions and inform public health policies to prevent and manage the condition.
2. Mental Health and Behavioral Disorders
Mental health and behavioral disorders affect millions of people globally. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 out of every 8 individuals worldwide has a mental illness. The WHO also reports that the COVID-19 pandemic helped increase anxiety and depression by 25 percent.
Research in this area can help policymakers address conditions that can aggravate mental health issues. Researchers can study genetic, environmental and societal risk factors of mental health and behavioral disorders to inform the development of prevention strategies.
To date, research has helped develop many interventions that improve mental health outcomes. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness and pharmacological treatments.
Research can also help address issues exacerbating mental health challenges. For example, while awareness of mental health issues has increased, stigmas associated with these conditions persist. This can worsen symptoms and cause individuals to refuse help, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Anxiety and Depression
Everyone faces bouts of sadness in their lives. But when sadness or feeling down persists for a long time and impacts an individual’s day-to-day functioning, it could be a sign of major depression. About 21 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Anxiety, often mentioned in the same breath as depression, is a mental health disorder impacting about a third of adults at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorder is an umbrella term describing various types of disorders, from generalized anxiety disorder to panic and social disorders to phobia-related disorders.
Research has played a critical role in addressing anxiety and depression challenges by identifying risk factors, developing effective prevention and treatment strategies, and increasing access to mental health services. For example, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study follows over 10,000 children to understand the relationship between brain development and mental health outcomes as children become adolescents.
Substance abuse disorder refers to the overuse of drugs — from over-the-counter prescription drugs to alcohol to illicit drugs such as cocaine — in a way that harms one’s health. In addition to the negative physical health impacts, substance abuse disorder can lead to social, emotional and mental harm.
In 2021, 16.5 percent of the U.S. population had a substance use disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Research into substance abuse disorders can reveal factors that cause drug dependency, which can lead to prevention and intervention strategies. One example of prominent research in this area is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an annual survey conducted by SAMHSA. Another example is the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Clinical Trials Network (CTN). It conducts clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of behavioral and pharmacological treatments for substance abuse disorders.
3. Health Impacts of Climate Change
Since 1880, Earth’s surface temperature has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Climate.gov. This increase represents a significant warming of the planet. Climate change brings extreme temperature variances, reduced ice cover and heavier rainfalls.
In addition to impacting the natural ecosystems of plants and animals, including habitat loss, climate change affects humans in various ways. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that over 11,000 Americans have died from heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke since 1979.
The potential impact of research into the health impacts of climate change can affect public health policy and practice. Below are examples:
Extreme Weather Events
Research findings can be used to help build resilience in communities prone to extreme weather events, such as coastal areas in the U.S. Studies can help reduce the risk of health impacts from extreme weather events by providing information that can be used to improve flood preparedness and reduce the risk of illnesses in certain communities.
For example, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) conducts studies in the U.S. and abroad on the health effects of exposure to negative environmental conditions.
Disruption of Food Systems
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that climate change will significantly impact food security in the future. Food security means being able to obtain and consume food consistently, without periods of hunger. Climate change brings about more extreme weather events and can disrupt communities’ food security.
Research is essential to study the links between climate change, land degradation and food security to empower policymakers to respond with strategies that can help minimize food system disruptions.
Increase in Diseases Borne by Food, Water and Vectors
Climate change’s impact on health is significant as it affects safe drinking water for billions of people on the planet. The CDC reports that 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water accessible in their homes.
Climate change is also causing various health problems from water- and vector-borne diseases. For example, unsafe drinking water is a factor that impacts millions of people in some of the poorest regions on Earth, causing them to suffer from illnesses that range from diarrhea to cholera, both of which can lead to death.
Research is essential to help determine the scale of water-borne health threats and to provide other information that can be used to develop targeted strategies to provide safe drinking water and adequate sanitation to some of the world’s most affected regions.
Prepare for a Career Focused on Solutions to Public Health Problems
An important aspect of public health research is collaboration. Researchers from different backgrounds, such as medicine, social sciences and epidemiology, can share data and solutions about public health topics for research.
For example, public health experts and urban planners can work together to promote physical activity in cities. In another example, partnerships between health care providers and community organizations can help address health disparities in a community.
For individuals looking to make an impact, learning valuable public health research skills can be a great first step. For example, the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Augusta University Online prepares individuals with knowledge and competencies to develop effective, equitable public health solutions through research. The program focuses on teaching students how to promote public health, develop research strategies to uncover solutions, and advocate for communities and individuals.
Learn more about the MPH program at Augusta University Online. Where will it take you?
Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development, Significance of the ABCD Study
American Medical Association, “Leana Wen, MD, MSc, on Her Top Public Health Priorities for 2023”
American Psychiatric Association, “Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness”
American Psychiatric Association, “What Are Anxiety Disorders?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Global WASH Fast Facts
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Long COVID or Post-COVID Conditions
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mental Health Conditions: Depression and Anxiety
Climate.gov, “Climate Change: Global Temperature”
HHS.gov, “SAMHSA Announces National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Results Detailing Mental Illness and Substance Use Levels in 2021”
IPCC, “Food Security”
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Clinical Trials Network (CTN)
National Institute of Environment Health Sciences, Global Environmental Health
National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety Disorders
National Institute of Mental Health, Major Depression
World Health Organization, Climate Change
World Health Organization, “Climate Change and Health”
World Health Organization, “COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide”
World Health Organization, “Mental Disorders”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate Change Indicators: Heat-Related Deaths”
U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Science & Tech Spotlight: Long COVID”