What if you were asked to define the concept of public health? How would you respond? Presently, the majority of the population think that this term is synonymous with medicine. Others are convinced that it is more about statistics. What is even more surprising is that many people believe that public health implies the “healthcare for low-income families” (Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century, 2013, para. 1). It is hard to determine why the last-mentioned opinion is so widespread, especially as far as it is not even partly correct. So, what is public health in reality, and why is it so important?
Defining Public Health
Public health refers to actions aimed to improve the health indicators of various communities with the help of encouragement of healthy lifestyles, control over infectious illnesses, disease prevention, medical studies, etc. (What is Public Health? 2015). In other words, the public health’s primary interest is protecting the well-being of the population. What is important is that the size of that population does not matter. It can be both tiny (as a single family or a small community, for example) and huge (as the whole city, state, country, and so on). So, obviously, public health is not just about the support for low-income families.
The Historical Development of Public Health
The historical development of public health started at that very moment when first diseases appeared. A thousand years ago, when people were hunter-gatherers, the first and only diseases they suffered from were those that could be transmitted from insect, rodents, and animals attracted to people’s villages (A Brief History of Public Health, n.d.). At that time, everybody considered a disease as a punishment sent by the gods. The first person who was convinced of the opposite was Hippocrates. However, although even then he already asserted that illnesses were caused by the imbalance in the human body, centuries passed before any scientific progress in medicine finally started.
One of the first large-scale diseases was the bubonic plague (A Brief History of Public Health, n.d.). People did not know how it was transmitted and where it came from but they still took some precautions to prevent it: they tried to cover the whole body, wearing masks, gloves and even sacks on the noses.
Then, in the 1800s, cholera epidemics came, and the world learned about the father of epidemiology, named John Snow (A Brief History of Public Health, n.d.). He was the one who explained the symptoms, described how cholera was spread and even suggested particular ways of prevention.
However, public health (as we understand it nowadays) emerged only in the nineteenth century, primarily in England and France due to works by John Graun, William Farr, Edwin Chadwick, and others (A Brief History of Public Health, n.d.). They studied mortality rates, as well as a connection between people’s health and economics, and believed that the situation can be improved with the help of reforms. Edwin Chadwick came up with the Sanitary Idea, the reform, which significantly improved people’s well-being and reduced the mortality rates.
Finally, the twentieth century became a huge step forward in the development of public health. During that time, a lot has been done to control the infectious diseases, prevent deaths from strokes or other heart-related conditions, provide people with healthier food, etc. (Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century, 2013).
Careers within Public Health
The first question that probably arises is the one concerning the difference between the public health and medicine per se. The main difference lies in the fact that doctors and nurses treat people when those are already ill or injured while specialists who work within public health do their best to protect people from being sick in the first place.
So, who works in the field of public health? There are biostatisticians who “track the health of a population” (LaPonsie, Vincent, Gerlitz, & Joeckel, 2015, para. 10). There are informatics specialists who develop and improve the applications for data collection and storage. There are health care educators, administrators, and workers who promote the ways of healthy living among vulnerable communities by educating them and undertaking various activities. There are also epidemiologists, psychologists, nurses, social workers, research analysts, etc. This list can be greatly expanded.
However, for better navigation in the variety of professions, the field of public health should be divided into several subcategories. LaPonsie et al. (2015) define ten of those: Biostatistics and Informatics, Community/Environmental/Global Health, Epidemiology, Maternal and Child Care, Health Management, Health Promotion, Social Health, and Minority Health. Adequately, every one of these categories includes several different jobs.
To conclude, the concept of public health is much more complicated than people may think. Its diversity of professions is impressive. Its origins go back to the times of Hippocrates. Its history lasts several centuries, and it is definitely not finished yes. New diseases appear. Infections mutate. Medications lose their effectiveness. All of this leaves the humankind with the fact that it is much easier to prevent the disease than to cure it. Therefore, the need for public health methods is steadily increasing.
A Brief History of Public Health. n.d. Web.
LaPonsie, M., Vincent, S., Gerlitz, J., & Joeckel, K. (2015). A Guide to Public Health Careers. Web.
Ten Great Public Health Achievements in the 20th Century. 2013. Web.
What is Public Health? 2015. Web.