What is public health?

Updated: Nov 7, 2018

WHO currently uses Acheson’s 1988 definition of Public Health as: “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society” (Acheson, 1988; WHO).

The healthcare sector can only achieve so much when it comes to improving the health of populations; the more important drivers of health are factors like GDP, employment, education, transport, pollution, global warming, and the availability of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods.

Public health teams work to influence the way that societies are structured to prevent illness and promote health and wellbeing. Many activities are targeted at populations such as health campaigns. Public health services also include the provision of personal services to individual persons, such as vaccinations, behavioural counselling, or health advice.

Famous examples of public health in action include John Snow removing the pump handle from the Broad St water pump to stop a cholera epidemic; the huge improvements in life expectancy witnessed during the 18th century that were driven largely by improvements in hygiene, water, and sanitation; Richard Doll establishing the link between smoking and development of lung cancer; and Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Study of Civil Servants that identified the health effects of the now-famous ‘social gradient’. Vaccinations and coordinated efforts to roll back Malaria, TB, and HIV also fall under the purview of public health.

Here you can find short overviews of core topics