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What is Public Health?

Public Health encompasses all the practices that serve to improve the health of the community and the people who live and work in it, regardless of who performs the practices.

During the past several decades, Public Health Departments in the United States have assumed a greater responsibility for providing medical services for underserved citizens. As a result, many people associate Public Health with providing medical care for the poor and disadvantaged.  In fact, many citizens do obtain high quality medical care at their local Health Department.  However, that is not the complete picture of the role that Public Health plays in making our communities healthier.

A 1988 report entitled The Future of Public Health defined the mission of Public Health as:  

"fulfilling society's interest in assuring the conditions in which people can be healthy."  

This mission implies a much broader role for Public Health than staffing medical clinics in health department facilities. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlined the responsibilities of Public Health in a community. According to the CDC, Public Health: 

  • prevents epidemics and the spread of disease
  • protects against environmental hazards
  • prevents injuries
  • promotes and encourages healthy behaviors
  • responds to disasters and assists the community in recovery
  • assures the quality and accessibility of health services

In other words, Public Health sees its "patient" as being the entire community, i.e., the people and the physical and social environments in which they live.  Standard indicators such as infant mortality and disease rates are used to measure the health of the community. After assessing the health of the community, Public Health provides leadership for creative problem-solving and policy development.  Finally, Public Health continues to monitor the health indicators in the community, assuring that the problems are being addressed and that the "patient" - our community and its people - is becoming healthier. 

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