Why Is Public Health Important?
History of Public Health
The American Public Health Association defines public health as the promotion and protection of “the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” Public health efforts are focused on the prevention of illness and examine how factors such as environment, experience and behavior can affect the well-being of specific populations. Public health professionals perform a wide variety of tasks — from conducting research to tracking the spread of infectious diseases and to educating the public on how to stay healthy and avoid injuries and illnesses.
The history of public health goes back centuries. During the London cholera epidemic of 1854, a man named John Snow used maps to trace outbreaks of cholera. He determined that the disease was being spread from a town water pump and urged community leaders to remove the pump handle. The discovery that cholera was being spread through the water supply, along with Snow’s actions to address the source of the disease, serves as an early example of public health intervention.
Another example of historic public health efforts can be found as early as the 17th century. Many European cities took precautions against the spread of the plague by enforcing quarantine measures and recording death rates — practices that we still see in the management of epidemics.
Over time, experts have continued to learn more about how the health of a population can be informed by science and influenced through public initiatives, leading to the public health practices that are utilized in the United States today.
The Impact of Public Health
Through the work of federal organizations, community programs and other initiatives, the role of public health includes addressing sanitation, environmental health, the eradication of infectious diseases, disaster preparedness and response, and the prevention of chronic illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Introduction to Public Health.
Public Health Research
Research plays a major part in public health. For example, the study of infectious diseases and the development of vaccines has helped to eliminate illnesses in the United States that once caused significant harm. Prior to 1955, the United States reported 15,000 cases of paralysis due to polio outbreaks per year. Once vaccines became available, this number significantly decreased to less than 100 just a decade later. Polio is now considered eliminated in the United States.
The impact of public health research can also be seen in the discovery of how fluoride can benefit oral health. In 1930, epidemiological research found a connection between the levels of fluoride in groundwater and resistance to oral cavities. The fluoridation of community water, as well as the addition of fluoride to toothpaste and other dental materials, led to a decrease in cavities and improved oral health over time, according to Research!America, a nonprofit promoting science and innovation.
Public Health Policy
To get an idea of how experts can influence health outcomes for a population, it is critical to understand the importance of public health policy. Many people are familiar with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which formed in 1906 after the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act. This legislation helped to regulate the safety of consumer goods, an effort that is continued through policy today in order to reduce food-related illnesses and ensure that food products are safe for the public to consume.
The monumental Affordable Care Act (ACA; PDF, 297 KB) was originally passed in 2010 to improve access to health care insurance. Since then, additional legislation has influenced what benefits can be utilized through the ACA. This remains an important policy topic among public health professionals.
Another area of public health with a long history of policy work is tobacco consumption. For example, in the early 2000s, multiple states banned the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products in bars and restaurants to reduce exposure to second-hand smoke. As a result, each state saw a significant improvement of air quality in hospitality settings.
Public Health Outreach Programs
Educational and community-based programs play an important part in improving quality of life, preventing disease and injury, and promoting healthy behaviors, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Through health education, case management, community health screenings and other outreach activities, public health initiatives can reach marginalized communities and increase access to healthcare information.
One example of a public health outreach initiative is the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) Model. Developed by the CDC and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the model aims to keep young people “healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged.” The model was developed to be a resource for schools to support the health and education of their students.
Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.