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What is Public Health: The Public Health Definition

June 09, 2021
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What is Public Health?

In recent years, the U.S. healthcare system has begun to rethink how we define public health and the approaches it takes to tackle public health issues. In the past, the term was used loosely as a placeholder for any topic related to wider healthcare, but more recently has become a more focused and professional agenda.

The term Public Health now encompasses a range of medical and scientific approaches to improving, protecting and developing the overall health of a community. Whether it be a small neighborhood or an entire country, public health researchers gather detailed information regarding all aspects of healthcare and use this information to formulate effective solutions to common problems.

The nation's leading public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offers the following public health definition:

"Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. This work is achieved by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention and detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases."1

When we define public health in this way, you can see how the scope of public health goes beyond the provision of healthcare infrastructure and medical staff. The majority of public health sector work involves the research and development of methods to reduce infection, prevent disease and promote healthier lifestyles.

History of Public Health

The Hippocratic Corpus was one of the earliest models that looked at how a community's or individual's environment can impact general health. Although very basic by today's standards, it was the first move towards a scientific approach to healthcare.2

In the 14th century, growing populations and lack of sufficient waste disposal led to catastrophic plagues that necessitated the need for better research into public health. The ability to better understand disease transmission became critical, and public health measures such as quarantines were introduced.3

Over time, governments developed preventative measures that identified the determinants of diseases and aimed to remove risk factors, improve sanitation and reduce potential outbreaks. British lawyer Edwin Chadwick helped formulate the UK's Public Health Act of 1848 which led to Lemuel Shattuck's highly influential "Report of the Massachusetts Sanitary Commission."4

The Enlightenment period of the 18th and 19th centuries saw American physicians like Oliver Holmes, a Harvard Medical School graduate, develop new ways of combating contagious diseases. John Snow compounded upon this with his groundbreaking research into cholera and contaminated water sources.3

In the 20th century, the United States began regulating food and drink, eventually developing the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to oversee it.4 In 1946, the CDC was formed in Atlanta, Georgia, with the primary task of preventing the spread of malaria. It is now the country's key agency in disease prevention, health promotion and outbreak preparedness.5

Modern Components of Public Health

In the 21st century, Public Health has become a more professional industry with clearly defined goals and a wealth of experts helping to develop the sector. However, the broad scope and complexity of factors involved make it a difficult industry to define in the public's eye.

Healthcare officials work with public health agencies to better understand the medical requirements of communities, but the real successes of public health are seldom visible. An epidemic avoided, an increased average lifespan of a community or an overall improvement to quality of life—these all occur in the background while we go about our day.6

More often than not, the key elements of public health are difficult to quantify: risk reduction, disaster avoidance and infection containment—all actions that seldom produce visible, verifiable results. It's usually only when public health is unable to contain a threat that its daily struggles are highlighted.

Other less obvious components of public health today include research into causes of autism, effects of secondhand smoke, environmental sustainability, delivering vitamins to developing nations and even perceivably minor issues like bullying in schools.7

The Critical Importance of a Robust Public Health Service

Without the effective prevention methods put forward by public health services, the world today would look very different. Over the past 100 years, public health agencies and officials have helped to reduce and sometimes eradicate entire diseases through the development of vaccinations and disease control measures.8

Furthermore, the introduction of fluoridation in drinking water, family planning services, workplace safety and tobacco and alcohol taxes have been major achievements for public health. These and many of the other solutions that public health agencies offer have helped to reduce hospital admissions and increase lifespans worldwide.9

As one of America's Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, famously said, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This important quote could be seen as one of the earlier and more abstract public health definitions.10

The American Public Health Association now chooses to define public health as "the practice of preventing disease and promoting good health within groups of people, from small communities to entire countries."11

The Ongoing Need for Improvement

As the world begins to emerge from the aftermath of yet another global pandemic, the need for better public health awareness is more apparent than ever. The industry must continue to evolve, and to do so effectively; it requires professionals with the knowledge and experience to lead future generations.

If you feel you could help the public health sector in its efforts to increase awareness, develop solutions and save lives, you might want to consider earning an online Master's in Public Health from Kent State University.

Kent State’s MA in Public Health is an online degree that can be completed in your own time from the comfort and safety of your home. It covers three specializations, including epidemiology, health policy management and social and behavioral sciences.

It's the perfect degree for those who want to make a long-lasting difference in the quality of public health around the world.


1. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from cdcfoundation.org/what-public-health
2. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d688
3. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/mph-modules/ph/publichealthhistory/publichealthhistory_print.html
4. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218224/
5. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from cdc.gov/about/history/index.html
6. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from apha.org/What-is-Public-Health
7. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from jhsph.edu/about/what-is-public-health/
8. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from ourworldindata.org/eradication-of-diseases
9. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK154484
10. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from learningenglish/voanews.com/a/an-ounce-of-prevention-is-worth-a-pound-of-cure-/5326585.html
11. Retrieved on March 16, 2021, from capitalareaphn.org/about/what-is-public-health