The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service

These health care professionals serve U.S. agencies

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Housed under the Department of Health and Human Services, officers in the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service serve in a variety of health-related roles around the nation.

These health care professionals cooperate with government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote the health and well-being of American citizens.

History of the Commissioned Corps

By order of President John Adams, the Commissioned Corps employed doctors in the Marine Hospital Service to take care of ill and injured sailors. The goal was to prevent the spread of disease as sailors re-entered the country from foreign locations.

By 1871 America had become a complex place, and it became more difficult to administer health care to the Navy. The country's first surgeon general decided to simplify the equation by imposing military discipline on doctors of the Marine Hospital Service, setting them up with naval ranks and uniforms.

Eventually, the growing needs of the nation led to greater responsibilities for the corps, which provided services to the general public including the control and prevention of disease. (The CDC wouldn't be conceived until 1946.)

By 1912 its expanded scope earned the Marine Hospital Service the more apt title of "Public Health Service," though the Commissioned Corps remains grounded in its naval roots as one of the two uniformed services that are not technically in the U.S. military.

Requirements to Serve in the Commissioned Corps

The two most important requirements for service with the Commissioned Corps are education and licensure. Like the Armed Forces' direct commissioning programs for medical professionals, the Corps doesn't take raw recruits; they look for those who have already invested in an advanced education and established themselves as civilian professionals. Some of the positions in the Commissioned Corps include:

  • Physicians
  • Registered Nurses (with bachelor's or master's degree only)
  • Dentists
  • Social workers
  • Psychiatrists and psychologists
  • Dietitians (bachelors to doctorate)
  • Allied professions, such as dental hygienists and physician assistants
  • Pharmacists

Opportunities to join the Commissioned Corps in one of these professions may vary from year to year depending on need. 

Potential officers must be citizens of the United States under the age of 44 and pass medical and physical examinations. Though recruited as civilian professionals, hopefuls must also be prepared to conform to height, weight, and grooming standards similar to the U.S. Armed Forces.

Careers in the Commissioned Corps

Unlike an enlistment in the military, the Commissioned Corps isn't something you can jump into right out of high school. But there are a few opportunities to start a career with the Corps for those who need a helping hand.

Those already serving in the military may be able to transition to a career with USPHS through one of two educational programs. Aspiring physical therapists with a bachelor's degree can apply to attend a doctoral program offered jointly by the Army and Baylor University in Waco, Texas. There's also the Interservice Physician Assistant Program, which caters to the Public Health Service.

As for civilians, students on their way to earning an appropriate degree can apply to serve as interns during school breaks, earning ensign (O1) pay and points toward promotion and retirement they can take with them if hired after graduation.