Defining Public Health

Public health is a field that aims to meet the medical needs of entire communities, in contrast to “typical” health professions, who aim to meet medical needs at an individual level. Sanitation, vaccines, contraception, environmental regulations, etc. all encompass regular functions of public health. I would argue that public health is one of the most (if not the most) important career sectors in the contemporary world. In our current society, humans need (healthy) humans in order to achieve “progress,” or whatever that elusive term may represent. A community can therefore not succeed if there is a continuous, debilitated workforce impeding it. In order to combat this, public health seeks to ensure that a community is indeed healthy.

Due to globalization, our ever-shrinking world is consistently redefining what it means to work in public health, as communities continue to become more interwoven with one other. Because of this interconnectedness, public health officials have been forced care deeply about health in not just their own communities, but in communities around the world. In 2014, the entire world began to fear when West Africa experienced an Ebola outbreak. We knew that one short flight by someone does not know that he/she is affected by the virus could cause the outbreak to spread to anywhere in the world in less than a day. Such has been the reality for less than a century of all of human history. Globalization has not simply brought on the increased migration of diseases, however, but also an increased trading and collaboration on technology. Today, a vaccine that may be developed in Germany can be easily accessible today in all parts of the globe within the span of a week. Additionally, public health officials from different areas of the world are not only able to use each other’s work, but they are also able to collaborate with one other, either by traveling to be with one another in person or by collaborating ideas virtually. While the means to protect public health are ever changing, the sole goal has stood the test of time – ensure the health of the public.

Intertwined Destinies

Normally, we think of health as doctors who operate on an individual basis with the patient. They build an emotional connection where the doctor is a personal guide through times of tribulation. However, public health enlarges this interaction to another scale, and public health workers are able to make an impact on a larger scale. However, public health bears little emotional connection that individual healthcare offers. To me, public health is the interdisciplinary maintenance of the physical and mental wellbeing of populations. Public health inevitably involves many different fields such as economics, politics, and even environmental science.

This summer, I participated in Urban Immersion, a week-long community service program at Rice University and on the second day, the group toured the east side of Houston and the environmental injustices the community was facing. We discovered that the imbalance in wealth and power between communities in Houston led the government to build numerous dangerous, toxic chemical refineries and waste dumping sites unnecessarily close to low-incoming communities. This unfortunate scenario in turn jeopardizes the public health of many communities.

Public health also brings everyone in a community closer, whether they like it or not. I attended an all-boys private boarding school in high school, and there was an epidemic where random students started puking and confined to their beds due to a mysterious contagious disease. While I was fortunate enough to not get sick, I felt stuck and embedded in a community and actively sought to take care and look out for my fellow classmates. If one person got sick, the likelihood of an entire population to contract a disease increases drastically since we all live in close proximity to each other.

My boarding experiences in high school paints a picture of public health, which is important because it affects every single one of us. All policies regarding healthcare, Ebola, Zika, and disease prevention are and should be of concern to us. Especially in an increasingly globalized society, all of us are invariably connected and public health becomes absolutely vital to the survival of the human race. Indeed, our destinies are intertwined and whether we like it or not, we are in this mess together.

Defining Public Health

Public health is the study of the health conditions of populations as affected by socioeconomic circumstances, and ways to effectively combat illnesses and unhealthy lifestyles as a community.

A critical component to public health studies is research. Research helps to generate accurate records of the health standards in different populations under different living conditions. For example, researchers involved in epidemiology study the distribution and spread of diseases, helping to characterize the environments in which certain diseases are transmitted and the ways or social dynamics in which they are spread. Such illnesses cover both infectious diseases, the most alarming of which include the Zika virus, MERS, and Ebola, as well as noninfectious diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It is important to note that it is the public health sector that does not simply look at the severity or cure of disease, as would most medical professionals; public health tries to understand the culture or lifestyles that lead to such distribution of various illnesses. The research component of public health is becoming ever more pivotal as globalization is taking place at an accelerating rate—we now have more interactions with people of different regions, which, in essence, leave us more susceptible to transmit disease by means of both physical contact and cultural assimilation. Characterizing a region with a certain lifestyle and its prevalent diseases not only helps to track the transmittance and origin of a disease but also helps to effectively deal with other situations, similar in circumstances, in a different region or time period.

Public health not only studies but also acts. Public health professionals try to come up with the most effective yet feasible solution to the various public health issues addressed by research. Delivering adequate health care to developing countries is a major mission that many public health organizations strive for. In doing so, however, they must consider the long term and short-term benefits to the nations’ health standards. A classic debate is providing medication, which would be a short-term solution, versus providing education to train their people to become future doctors and health-related researchers, a long-term solution. Another major mission of many public health professionals is to help trigger change in unhealthy lifestyles in both developing and developed nations. These efforts take form of public service announcements, and education on healthy lifestyles. In such ways, public health takes on both preventative and therapeutic approaches.

Lastly, public health professionals help to look at medical diagnoses from the perspective of both the physician and patient. For example, the “over-diagnosis” of thyroid cancer in South Korea in recent years has been a source of debate. With development of technology, patients have been able to detect thyroid cancers at very early stages and a very low cost. Upon diagnosis however, some argue that the tumors do not have to be treated while others argue that patients be on the safe side, and have the tumor removed. Public health sectors may help to analyze and weigh out the economic limitations patients see in the operation and doctors’ judgments of removal for long-term health. The high diagnosis of thyroid cancer in South Korea, itself, may be another focus of some public health professionals.

In sum, public health professionals strive to research, understand and ameliorate health conditions of various populations of disparate socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

What is Public Health?

Public health is simply the health of a large group of people. This health is usually measured by a central agency and the population can be of a city, state, or country. However, a growing field of importance is international public health. This is one of the most significant areas of public health because it involves nations on a wide spectrum of healthcare efficiency. There are nations that worry about degenerative diseases, various cancers, and extending the life expectancy past eighty. On the other hand, there are nations struggling to vaccinate their children and are still battling infectious diseases that have been eliminated just across the ocean decades ago. Consequently, having an agency that monitors, reports, and recommends certain programs to improve international public health is a high priority in our globalizing economy. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control regularly make comprehensive analyses of international health and possible epidemics.

While important, one central agency does not have to be responsible to address public health. There are ample private enterprises, such as the Gates Foundation, that seek to improve the quality of life of people in disadvantaged areas. Thus, these organizations are also involved in the larger goal of improving public health on a social level. Finally, it is worth noting that although public health is the overall health of a population, individuals make up this population and, thus, are directly affected by public health policies (or lack of). Individuals cannot isolate their own health and quality of life from the public health of the area they are living because the policies implemented to improve public health will directly improve their own standard of living. On the other hand, lack of strong and effective policy to improve public health would lower the standard of living of all individuals within that population. In conclusion, public health is significant because it interconnects the health of all humans in our increasingly connected world.