What is public health?
Public health is about influencing people's lifestyles or aspects of the environment in which they live with the aim of preventing them from becoming unhealthy or ill, or of improving their health and wellbeing. Sometimes this involves helping individuals, at other times it involves dealing with wider factors (cultural, social or economic) that have an impact on the health of many people (e.g., an age-group, an ethnic group, a locality, or a country).
While medicine and nursing are vital for helping and supporting people when they fall ill, work in public health contributes to reducing the causes of ill health and improving people's health and wellbeing. It does this by: protecting people's health (e.g. from environmental or biological threats); improving people's health (e.g. by helping people quit smoking or improving their living conditions); and ensuring that our health services are the most effective, most efficient and equally accessible.
In 1988, Sir Donald Acheson defined public health as:
the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organised efforts of society.
A longer definition is given by The World Health Organization:
Public health refers to all organized measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole. Its activities aim to provide conditions in which people can be healthy and focus on entire populations, not on individual patients or diseases. Thus, public health is concerned with the total system and not only the eradication of a particular disease.
To watch a fun and informative animation on "What is Public Health?", please click here.
Some important public health terms
Health: Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO 1948).
Wellbeing: A wider concept which embraces fulfilling our desires, reaching our potential and subjective wellbeing that combines the pleasures in life with our interpretation of how we think and feel about our life (Natural England 2008).
Public Health: The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organised efforts of society (Acheson 1988).
Population Health: the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group (Kindig and Stoddard 2003).
Social determinants of health: The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels (WHO).
Health inequalities: The difference in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups (WHO).
Epidemiology: the science concerned with the study of the factors determining and influencing the frequency and distribution of disease, injury, and other health-related events and their causes in a defined human population. (Dorland’s Medical Dictionary 2007).
Public health is at the forefront of tackling those factors that influence health and wellbeing. By gathering good evidence about how these factors influence people's health and wellbeing, and by analysing and interpreting the evidence carefully (a science called 'epidemiology'), we can make informed decisions about how best to proceed. This is called 'evidence-based practice'. It builds on epidemiological analysis to help us understand what makes an effective policy, programme or intervention, in terms of the impact it has on people’s health and wellbeing.
There is no better time to join in the effort to promote and protect population health. From growing rates of obesity to bio-terrorism and the advent of new diseases, public health issues appear regularly on the front pages of our newspapers.
If you can make change happen and believe passionately in improving and protecting people's health and wellbeing and the conditions and services that influence their health, then public health is the career for you.