Over the past twenty years the global burden of morbidity and mortality has shifted from communicable diseases to noncommunicable or chronic disease, with heart disease and cancer as the leading causes of death. Regardless of the focus of the shift, public health still is a necessary ingredient to addressing and improving the health of populations. Increasing healthcare costs, health inequities and risk factors for chronic disease, e.g. physical inactivity, poor nutrition, or tobacco use, reminds us of the value and need for public health efforts. If you are a public health professional reading this…you might be thinking…of course!
Public health has accomplished many marked achievements in the 20th century, with ten notable ones that have contributed to population health, including immunizations, seat-belt use and motor-vehicle safety, or safer and healthier foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “public health is credited with adding 25 years to the life expectancy of the people in the United States in this century.” These accomplishments continue to support the health of communities and populations, unknown to the average person. I have worked in public health for over twelve years now and a culture of public health has definitely improved; however, I have been reminded more than once lately with phrases such as “I think I understand” or “I don’t know how data relates to public health” that the average person and even some professionals that should, do not know what public health is, its value and how it affects their daily life.
So, let us take a step back to talk about the difference between public health and health care. What exactly is Public Health? The American Public Health Association defines public health as “promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play. While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.” Therefore, public health is focused on addressing and improving population health. Makes sense, right? Now let us pivot and define public health as vaccinating children and adults to prevent the spread of diseases, supporting policies that reduce the use of tobacco to prevent exposure to secondhand smoke, workplace safety to address injury prevention, or nutrition programs for children in schools to increase access to healthy foods. Even your garbage persons are public health professionals, ensuring sanitation in your community to prevent the spread of disease.
While public health is focused on the population, healthcare is an integral component of the public health system. However, it is focused on the individual versus a population or community, and places an emphasis on diagnoses, treatment and care for the individual patient. (Harvard T.H. Chan, School of Public Health). Healthcare is vital to ensuring the heath of individuals, but public health is focused on preventing or reducing the need for healthcare in the first place. Public health research continues to expand and identify evidence-based practices that are proven to contribute to a healthy population, such as recognizing now that driving alone to work longer than 30 minutes each day negatively affects a person’s health, including higher blood pressure and body mass index, physical inactivity, and contributes to obesity. (County Health Rankings).
While public health cannot alone fix local, state, national or even global health, it can reduce the burden of disease and risk for disease in populations. When the average person from worksite, school, healthcare, faith-based or even finance sectors collaborate, public health can truly work and show its value. If you are new to public health or in that category of “I think I understand”, learn more from the American Public Health Association and get involved in your community. If you are part of the public health community, find opportunities to educate and engage the “average person” on public health and how to see life through a public health lens.