Recently, public health has received considerable publicity and media coverage. While this is a welcome change, it also raises the question, “What is Public Health?”. This article will attempt to explain what public health is, and lay the foundation for subsequent articles.
Collective goods are goods whose provision or consumption is shared by members of the public. Collective goods differ from commodities provided by markets or consumed by individuals
Several definitions of Public Health have been proposed:
“the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society”
“the science of protecting the safety and improving the health of communities through education, policy making and research for disease and injury prevention”
“the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.”
“the science, practice, and art of collective efforts to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong quality of life among populations, while assuring conditions in which all people can be healthy.“
The various definitions convey some common elements:
- Collective action
- Disease prevention
- Health promotion
These are directed towards ensuring the health of populations. This signifies a major difference between public health and curative medicine. While curative medicine is concerned with the health of individual persons, public health is concerned about the health of entire populations or communities. This does not imply that public health neglects individual health- instead, individual health is considered within the broader health of that individual’s community.
Similarly, while curative medicine typically tries to fix a health problem (intervention after a problem occurs), public health strives to prevent the occurrence of such problems in the first place. This is easier said than done, and most public health interventions yield tangible results over several years (often decades). In contrast, the outcome of treatment for individual patients is typically known within days to weeks. Naturally, curative medicine is more attractive and lucrative.
Public health reflects the commitment of governments to invest in the health and well-being of citizens. Unlike medicine, however, public health is multidisciplinary and inter-sectoral, and involves disciplines such as:
- Public policy
- Computer science
- Biostatistics, etc.
The diversity reflects the variety of disciplines that contribute to health promotion and prevention. The overall vision is to promote greater health and well-being in a sustainable way, while strengthening integrated public health services and reducing inequalities. In order to achieve this vision, the public health approach involves working with other sectors to address the wider determinants of health, and with health professionals.