What is Public Health?

"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" C-.E.A. Winslow, 19201

"Public health is what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy." - Institute of Medicine, 19882

Medicine and public health

Medicine focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of the individual.

Public Health focuses on the prevention of disease in the population using evidence-based practices, such as vaccination, sanitation, and health promotion and education.

Public Health3
Focus on the individual
Focus on the population
Emphasis on diagnosis and treatment, care for the whole patient
Emphasis on prevention, health promotion for the whole community
Biological sciences are central, stimulated by the need of patients
Biological sciences are central, stimulated by major threats to the health of populations
Predominant intervention is medical care
Varied interventions targeting the environment, human behavior (lifestyle) and medical care
Personal service ethic, conditioned by an awareness of social responsibilities
Public service ethic, tempered by concerns for the individual
Uniform certification of specialists beyond professional medical degree
Variable certification of specialists beyond professional public health degree

What has public health done for me?

During the 20th century, the health and life expectancy of persons residing in the United States improved dramatically. Since 1900, the average lifespan of persons has lengthened by greater than 30 years; 25 years of this gain are attributable to advances in public health.

Many notable public health achievements have occurred during the 1900s, and other accomplishments could have been selected for the list. The choices for topics were based on the opportunity for prevention and the impact on death, illness, and disability and are not ranked by order of importance.4

Read more about these achievement in the April 2, 1999 edition of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online.

  1. C.-E. A. Winslow, (1920). The untilled fields of public health. Science, New Series, 51 (1306): 23-33.(Note: Charles-Edward Amory Winslow was chair of the Dept. of Public Health at Yale University)
  2. Institute of Medicine, Committee on the Future of Public Health. (1988). The future of public health. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
  3. Fineberg, H. (1990). Public health vs. medicine. The population approach to public health. Harvard University School of Public Health.
  4. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. (1999). Morbidity and mortality weekly report.  48(12):241-243.