October 20, 2013
Most of us learn at a very young age what “medical doctor” means. Far fewer of us learn what “public health” means. Our nation’s public health system functions largely as a backdrop to promote the well-being of all of us in the U.S. As a member of the Institute of Medicine–IOM–committee that wrote the report, “Who Will Keep the Public Healthy: Educating Public Health Professionals for the 21st Century,” [http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2002/Who-Will-Keep-the-Public-Healthy-Educating-Public-Health-Professionals-for-the-21st-Century.aspx] this reality emerged time and again, as we discussed and debated the roles that the public health force play.
I often teach Korean and Chinese graduate students who look to the U.S. for a model for public health and how to organize and deliver it in their countries where policies are newer and emerging.We tend to take for granted that someone has inspected the safety and health of restaurants where we eat, the meat and produce that we buy to consume, and the water quality coming into our work sites and homes. These “luxuries” sometimes become more salient when we visit outside the boundaries of the U.S. In reality, these illustrate ways that our health is being safeguarded, not only for our individual well-being but for the health of all of us–with inoculations required for public school one of the most recognized acts taken for this aim.
The public good is served when actions are taken to protect and promote the health of each one of us as individuals in order to reduce the likelihood that any one of us will contribute to the illness of others and/or incur costs linked to the poor health of others. This principle frames some of the actions taken as part of the Affordable Care Act but has not been emphasized or clearly explained.