Public Health 101
By: Emily Campbell, MPH, CHES
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought public health to the front of news and social media sites. But what exactly is public health?
Charles-Edward Amory Winslow, an American public health expert, defined public health as “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.” In other words, public health has the goal of stopping disease before it starts.
Public health practices date back to 500 BC, when Greeks and Romans started to make sure their communities had sanitation measures in place, including cleaning debris from the streets and making sure the water was clean enough to drink. Public health efforts have eliminated the harmful polio epidemic and greatly reduced the flu and HIV pandemics. Public health has even played a role in natural disasters to protect and help people.
How are Public Health and Health Care Different?
We are all aware of healthcare, such as going to the doctor for a check-up or when you are sick. So how is public health different? Public health workers seek to prevent the worsening of disease and illness by changing the environment and promoting interventions to the public. While public health focuses on reducing outbreaks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it also focuses on making changes to programs, policies, systems, and environments (PPSE) to improve health and wellness for all. While healthcare focuses on helping the individual feel better when they are sick, public health focuses on improving the health of groups of people. These groups can be your neighborhood, your community, your workplace/school, or even your entire state!
How Can Public Health Support People with Disabilities?
Public health plays an important role in supporting the inclusion of all people and improving the lives of people with disabilities. One of the biggest goals in public health is to reduce the obstacles that many people face that may prevent them from completing tasks related to their health, such as eating healthy, exercising, or going to the doctor. This may include improving access to healthcare, changing the environment so that all people can physically access specific areas, and providing additional resources and support. A specific example of these efforts would be making sure that health education materials are available in accessible formats, such as Braille and audio formats. Creating alternate formats of materials, such as brochures and posters, promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities in public health efforts. Accessible materials not only reach more people, but also encourage others to think of ways to be more inclusive in their work and their daily lives. Good public health practice is about making all spaces inclusive, accessible, and equitable, in order to ensure that all people have the opportunity to make healthy choices.
Public health is all around you! No smoking signs, food labels, and even seat belt laws are all pieces of public health information, all created to improve health and wellness of all people. These interventions are created using evidence-based research that is rooted in science, with the genuine purpose of improving the lives of all people. When creating public health interventions, there are 4 common steps that take place:
- Find the problem
- Find the cause
- Figure out what works (and what doesn’t work)
- Figure out how to make it happen
These steps are followed by public health professionals to make their communities safer and healthier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) are organizations in the world of public health, all with the vision of improving the lives of all individuals.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Introduction to public health: Public health 101 series. https://www.cdc.gov/training/publichealth101/public-health.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, December 3). Disability and health inclusion programs and activities. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-public-health.html
- National Center on Accessible Educational Materials. (2021, September 16). About accessible formats. AEM Center. https://aem.cast.org/acquire/accessible-formats