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Definition and Goals of Public Health

Public health is a multidisciplinary field whose goal is to promote the health of the population through organized community efforts. (pp3-15 - Schneider, MJ Introduction to Public Health. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, Inc. 2000)


Contrast the:
Focus of Medicine: mainly on treating illness in separate individuals
Focus of Public Health: activities include

  •  Assessing the health status of the population

  •  Diagnosing its problems

  •  Searching for the causes for those problems

  •  Designing solutions for those problems.
    Solutions usually involve community-level interventions that control or prevent the cause of the problem. For example, educational programs to discourage teenagers from smoking, screening programs for cancer, laws requiring seat belt use.

Unfortunately, public health achievements are difficult to recognize because it is hard to identify people who have been spared illness. (pp6—Schneider).  For this reason, the field of public health has received less attention and fewer resources than the field of medicine has received.  Nevertheless,
public health has had a greater impact on the health of the population than the field of medicine has. 
Public health achievements include, for example

  • 25 years of the increase in life expectancy can be attributed to improvements in public health and only 5 years can be attributed to improvements in the medical care system.
  • Routine use of vaccinations for infectious diseases
  • Improvements in motor vehicle and workplace safety
  • Control of infectious diseases through improved sanitation and clean water
  • Smoking cessation and blood pressure control
  • Safer foods from decreased microbial contamination
  • Access to family planning and contraception services
  • Acknowledgement of tobacco as a health hazard and the ensuing anti-smoking campaigns.


The public health system's activities in research, education and program implementation have made these accomplishments possible.  In the United States this system includes federal agencies such as the CDC, state and local government agencies, nongovernmental organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and academic institutions such as schools of public health.  This complex array of institutions has achieved success through political action and gains in scientific knowledge. (pp 13-14, Schneider


Politics enters the public health process when agencies advocate for resources, develop policies and plans to improve a community's health, and work to insure that services needed for the protection of public health are available to all.  Political action is necessary because the government usually has the responsibility for developing the activities required to protect public health. Summarized from (pp. 2-3, Aschengrau A. Seage III, GR, Essentials of Epidemiology in Public Health, Jones and Bartlett Pub. 2003.