About Public Health

What is public health?

Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of a population and the communities where they live, work, learn and play.

It is achieved through the promotion of healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention as well as detecting and responding to infectious diseases. Public health connects us all.

Why is public health important?

Public health is responsible for monitoring and identifying repeating trends in a community that has or could have negative impacts on the people who live, work, play, and learn there. Public health also works to reduce health disparities in populations where one population is affected by a negative outcome(s) more than another population. It is our goal to prevent people from needing medical care through educational programs, policy changes, conducting research, and administering preventive services such as immunizations.

As an example:

City A has a population of 50 people, 25, or 50% died from cancer in the last 5 years. City B which also has a population of 50 people has 5 people or 10% that have died from cancer in the last 5 years. Basically, the difference between these two populations represents a health disparity based on the location in which they live, work, learn, and play. Accordingly, we would attempt to identify what is different between the two populations.

For instance, do those in city A work in a high-risk environment such as working with asbestos? Or do those in city B have higher access to clinical care that diagnoses and treats cancer earlier than those in city A? Evaluating these factors are essential to improving the health of the population in city A. If they lack clinical care access, adding a doctor could have a profound effect on reducing the mortality rate.

Public health is also important as an essential cog in the wheel for responding to public health threats such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics.

History of public health in application

One of the most famous examples of public health in action is the lesson of Dr. John Snow and the Broad Street Pump. 

John Snow was an obstetrician providing care for the residents of London, England in the mid-1800s. He made a startling observation that changed the way we view disease and prevention. Around 1831 the first case of cholera was documented in England. Over the next 20+ years, tens of thousands of people in England died from cholera. Dr. Snow observed many cases and a significant outbreak in Soho in 1854. He postulated the source of the outbreak was the drinking water used by the people. 

In the 1800s, waste and untreated raw sewage were collected into cesspools and/or dumped in the Thames river. Dr. Snow believed that these actions had the capability of infecting the drinking, cooking, and bathing water collected in the area wells. Additionally, water companies often bottled water from the Thames and delivered it to pubs, breweries, and other businesses where it was distributed to the populations living, working, playing, and learning there. 

Testing his theory

With the Soho outbreak, he set out to prove his theory. He began his investigation by tracking down information from hospitals and public records to determine where the outbreak began. The investigation included a geographical grid to chart deaths from the outbreak and determine access to the broad street pump. Dr. Snow found that within 250 yards of the spot where Cambridge Street joins Broad Street were upwards of 500 fatal attacks of cholera in 10 days, the location of the Broad Street Pump. Dr. Snow also investigated people who did not have cholera to determine if they used the pump and to rule out other potential sources. 

In September of 1854, Dr. Snow took his research to town officials and convinced them to take the handle off the pump, making it impossible to draw water. Although reluctant to believe him, the officials complied as a trial and the outbreak of cholera almost immediately trickled to a stop. Learn more about Dr. Snow and the Broad Street Pump.