What is Public Health?

I see public health not as merely as a subject that studies how promote the well-being of populations, but one that has so large a scope that can make use of every piece of human knowledge to solve complex health-related problems.

As a Chinese, I’m glad to see that my motherland is now an expanding world power, but the public healthcare of its citizens is still concerning. Born with a sweet tooth, I’m a frequent visitor to the dentist’s and always suffer from the fear of the dental drill. But the hardest part was that I had to arrive at the registry as early as 6:30 in the morning and waited three hours to receive treatment. Patients crowded the waiting hall and seats are hardly available.

I’ve witnessed how trust and respects towards doctors are plagued by high costs and long waits in China. News about violent attacks against medical professionals flooded every possible web page. It’s because the public couldn’t find a way to voice their opinions to government but they had to vent their anger. The vicious cycle started as less and less undergraduate students choose to pursue a medicine major and the shortage of medical practitioners continued to drive medical expenditures up.

However, the expenses are relatively cheap compared to those of the US citizens, and it’s definitely easier to see a doctor in China since there’s no appointment needed. Why are people still unsatisfied? Is there anything wrong with the social medical insurance policy? What can the government do to increase the number of medical doctors? When I’m pondering on these questions, I realized that public health is not only about distributing condoms and giving vaccinations, but a much more complicated field in which different subjects such as economics, demography, culture studies and public policy come cross and intertwine, trying to make healthcare and well-being possible, accessible and affordable for every citizen. Yes, curative medicine is the key that can facilitate us to achieve “health”, but not “public health”. Unlike science, there are not certain, quantitative answers or even existing theories that can help me answer those three questions I raised. The field of public health is so pivotal to us since its significance is already embodied in our everyday life. For example, in the context of my previous experience, we need doctors to be reachable and we need public health leaders to address the inefficiency between the demand and supply. Even if one argues that we don’t meet with doctors on a day-to-day basis, but other than biosciences, sewage treatment, custom inspection, and nutrition all are indispensable contributors to our well-being and they are different dimensions of the field of public health. We are sometimes oblivious of them, but we cannot deny the value of their existence.

What is Public Health?

Public health is the wellbeing of a group of people in a society. These groups can range from small communities—like those of neighborhoods or cities—to populations of countries or continents, or the entire globe. Inherently, the word “public” describes something that is influenced by multiple members of society. Thus, public health depends on the interactions between members of a community, how individual influences translate into a larger and more widespread effect. These form the health trends that we commonly see described today: the HIV epidemic, the spread of Zika virus, or the obesity epidemic. The study of public health aims to identify factors that affect multiple people, unlike medicine which attempts to treat individuals. The scope of public health can range from a small outbreak of food poisoning in an isolated neighborhood to prevalent infectious diseases such as Ebola or HIV that span multiple countries and multiple continents. Public health can be as basic as providing adequate nutrition and water to impoverished communities or as complex as creating a vaccine for HIV or Zika. It encompasses a broad spectrum of topics related to the health of a community: age, nutrition, pollution, cultural customs, class differences, federal policy, and much more.

Understanding public health is important because it can help governments make informed decisions and craft policies that can improve the standard of living for people, allowing people to live happier and more comfortable lives. For example, public health surveillance and the use of epidemiological records allows the government to track the prevalence of diseases to identify problems. Water testing prevents the public from acquiring waterborne diseases found in polluted waters. Public health is also important because it educates the public about the consequences of their actions. For example, public health research has uncovered the dangers of smoking, sexually transmitted diseases, and pollution, and helped individuals make better choices for their own lives and the lives of those around them. Public health also helps us understand what is occurring outside of our individual lives and promotes the formation of organizations that can provide aid to those who are less fortunate with the goal of promoting worldwide wellbeing. Through public health, the citizens of the world can live safer, more satisfying lives.

Red Ribbons


red-ribbonTo be completely honest, I really have not really thought about public health too deeply in the past. When thinking of public health in my mind, I can see headlines of Ebola infections and other malicious diseases affecting the people of this world. So to define public health, I would describe it as being aware of the plentiful diseases of the world around us. With the public having greater knowledge of the diseases that have the power to severely injure people, there should hopefully be a reduction in the number of people affected by these various diseases. To say it simply, with greater knowledge of these diseases and their associated prevention, the world would become a safer and healthier place.

For example, Red Ribbon Week would be a prime example of public health in my eyes. During Red Ribbon Week, there are various activities, speeches, and swag (you can never forget about the pencils!) which all promote the idea of not doing drugs. Although this may not be the severest of examples, I feel like it encompasses everything that public health, in my head, covers: the spreading of knowledge and the beginnings of prevention. Because institutions such as my elementary school implemented these ideas from such an earlier age, there is a greater chance for the presented concepts to actually be followed through which is ultimately the goal of those involved in public health. Within this Red Ribbon Week example, presenting the information about the egregious ramifications of using drugs at an early age acts as a deterrent for kids to use drugs in the future. By doing so, the institutions have disseminated knowledge and hopefully aided in the prevention of drug usage. This overall acts as something important as it is involved in trying to aid the welfare of the general public as a whole.

Another example of public health in the world is regarding the Zika virus. As many people now know, Zika is transmitted through mosquito bites which can turn out to become quite a problem for those who are pregnant. There is developing information about the spreading of Zika from mother to fetus while in the womb which creates various genetic defects. With the new knowledge of this disease, further information is being presented to the general public about the potential side effects and ways to hopefully prevent the transmission of the disease. And like Red Ribbon Week, people are sharing all known knowledge and the various ways of preventing the disease from being transmitted with the ultimate goal of eradicating diseases all together.