What Is Public Health?

network of public organizations includes cdc and fda

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Health science equipment laboratory
Public health in the United States serves three main functions: assessment, policy development, and assurance. Photo by Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

In May, the Biden administration will not renew the coronavirus public health emergency, which was declared a public health emergency in January 2020. The novel coronavirus was the third-highest cause of death in the United States from 2020 to mid-2022.

Preventing and treating diseases and other health problems is a complicated effort that takes place at several levels of society. Modern society has a vast system of private and public agencies, both domestic and international, that are dedicated to promoting our health. All of these and more fall under the umbrella of what is known as public health.

What else is meant by “public health?” In his video series Mind-Body Medicine: The New Science of Optimal Health, Dr. Jason Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, explains the idea of public health.

What Does Public Health Mean?

“Public health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals,” Dr. Satterfield said. “Public health is about fulfilling society’s interest in assuring conditions in which people can be healthy.”

The system of public health used to focus primarily on battling epidemics of acute infectious diseases. While some of this resurfaced with COVID-19, public health mostly centers on chronic diseases. It also helps society prepare for other threats to community health, such as HIV and AIDS or bioterrorism.

“The primary tasks of public health include the prevention of disease and injury, the promotion of health and well-being; the assurance of conditions in which people can be healthy; and lastly, the provision of timely, effective, and coordinated health care,” Dr. Satterfield said.

The major actors in public health include communities, the health care delivery system, employers, and business, as well as the media, academia, government, and the public health infrastructure.

What Are Public Health Services?

Federal, state, and local agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and county health officials work in the best interests of public health. So, what exactly do they do? The list is too long to include all of their roles, but Dr. Satterfield named several.

“First, they monitor health status to identify any emerging problems,” he said. “In most states, the public health departments have identified a short list of diseases that have mandated reporting requirements; so, if a new case of, say, HIV is discovered, that case is reported to the health department. Not to violate patient confidentiality, but just to alert the public health department that this new case has emerged.”

Public health offices keep track of these numbers at large to identify whether or not, for example, the public needs to be notified of an outbreak.

They also provide education to the public about diseases so people can identify, prevent, and treat illnesses. For example, HIV and AIDS education includes information about safe sex, the dangers of needle sharing, and so on. Public health offices also mobilize community partnerships to help solve health crises.

“Public health organizations help to enforce laws and regulations for public safety,” Dr. Satterfield said. “They help to research social factors relevant to health, and they help to develop new interventions to improve health.”

Mind-Body Medicine: The New Science of Optimal Health is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily