What is “public health” anyway?

copy-of-p3061598March 1, 2010

As children begin to know about roles and jobs, some will say, “I want to be a doctor.” Their parents buy them a ‘doctor’ kit to play with, and they practice being a doctor. I never hear a child say, “I want to work in public health.” Why is that? What’s wrong with this picture?

Public health isn’t part of the usual high school curriculum, so we don’t get an introduction to what a career in public health might look like. When health education is taught in high school, the course doesn’t introduce students to the public health system. And so, not surprisingly, few of us know what public health is or what the public health system does. 

Public health often treats health as a public good. A public good is something for which the benefits for one of us cannot be separated from the benfits for ‘all’ of us. When I get a flu shot, I am supposed to benefit by not getting the flu. But others benefit because they do not get exposed to the flu from me. 

So monies spent to inspect restaurants or public pools benefit every member of the public who eats at the restaurants or uses the pools, not just one of them. Monies spent for newborn screening programs benefit all of us because we identify conditions at early stages when prevention or care may limit the harm, and all of us benefit by having a friend or neighbor who can be a healthier and more productive citizen.     

School vaccines. Programs for reproductive health. Collection of data about births and deaths–vital statistics that can show patterns and be used to suggest how to improve birth outcomes and decrease deaths. Cancer registries. Programs to prevent disease and accidents. All of these and more are prt of public health’s efforts to promote the public good.

Is the public good “good” for me? Often it is. Sometimes, it may not be.

There are limits to what vaccines I want to be used as gatekeepers to my employment. But there are even more limits to what genetic tests I want to be used as gatekeepers to my free choice to pursue life paths. So the first step is to become aware of what public health means what public does. Then we can advance agendas relating to support for public health and guidelines about where to draw the line in the name of promoting the public’s health.

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54 Responses to “What is “public health” anyway?”

  1. Karyn Jones says:

    That was really fun. Thanks for taking this time with us, Rox!

  2. Regina Hall says:

    I agree with what Roxanne and others said about children not being properly educated on what ‘public health’ is, although they come in contact with it all the time. I also have noticed that I find most older educated individuals not really understanding what public health is either. I am a senior in college and pursuing a career in public health and am constantly asked what ‘public health’ is, I often find it hard to fully explain to my peers what it means. Public health incorporates so many things in a person daily living and often people do not take notice of ‘public health’ unless something goes wrong, for example, an ecoli outbreak at a local dinery, a flu epidemic or a bioterriosm attack, all of these scenerios deal with public health.

  3. Liz Lehky says:

    I am currently taking a health communication class, and when we came across the topic of public health, I will admit that I was very unsure of the idea of public health. I wondered why I am so unfamiliar with something that basically sets the agenda for health. After reading this blog, I realized that I am not alone. In Dr. Parrott’s book, Talking About Health: Why Communication Matters, she states, “We all have a suspicion or a nagging and lingering concern that data about our health are somewhere and somehow being used by someone. But efforts to communicate about health as a public good seldom tell us how this all works…” There needs to be communication beginning at an early age that not only teaches us what public health means, but how it works and why it is important. This will allow us to distinguish whether or not the public good is good for us individually, and if it is not, we will know where and how to draw the line.

  4. Guide4Fitness says:

    AWesome Post , keep it up

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