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.