Public health refers to the practice of promoting healthy lifestyles to the public in order to prevent disease, prolong life, and decrease pressure on healthcare systems.
The most famous scholarly definition is from Winslow:
“The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals” (Winslow, 1920).
Public health plays a vital role in disease prevention across the globe. Even though most governments recognize the importance of these services, they generally used to receive significantly less funding compared to medicine (Gatseva & Argirova, 2011).
Definition of Public Health Policy
Public health policy includes the laws, regulations, actions, and decisions implemented within society to promote public health.
It contains two elements:
- Public: The term ‘public’ might refer to a group as small as a village or as large as the entire world.
- Health: The concept of ‘health’ encompasses physical, psychological, and social well-being.
Similar to other tertiary (service) sector activities, public health policies are more prominent in developed countries.
The implementation of public health policies typically requires multidisciplinary teams of public health workers and professionals.
Teams may include epidemiologists, public health nurses, biostatisticians, economists, sociologists, geneticists, physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists, and so on (Joint Task Group on Public Health Human Resources et al., 2005).
Public health policies often include the promotion of healthy behaviors, communities, and environments.
An example would be public health communications programs, vaccination programs, and so on.
Goals of Public Health Policies
Public health policy has an essential role to play in improving the general well-being of a population and minimizing the negative impacts of social determinants of health.
It is the main goal of all public health policies to strive for the improvement of the health of the entire population.
Analysis of the health threats a population might face is the basis of public health. The term ‘public’ might mean a group as small as a village or as large as the entire world in case of a pandemic. The concept of ‘health’ encompasses physical, psychological, and social well-being.
The essence of public health is to understand the causes and consequences of death and disease. It is the job of policymakers to put that understanding to work, to translate knowledge into action for our collective well-being.
Science can identify solutions to pressing public health problems, but only policies can turn most of those solutions into concrete reality (Oliver, 2006).
Examples of Public Health Policy
- Injury prevention – Public health policies concerning the prevention of unintentional and intentional injuries. Policies implemented to reduce road crashes, poisoning, drowning, falling, burns, violence, or self-harm are all examples of public health policies regarding injury prevention.
- School health – Public health policies aimed at promoting healthy behavior and environmental improvements in schools.
- Toxin exposure – Public health policies aimed at the reduction of exposure to toxic chemicals.
- Emergency preparedness – Public health policies aimed at the improvement of the capability to respond to large-scale and unpredictable health emergencies.
- Food safety – Policies aimed at the prevention of food-borne illnesses through changes in the handling, preparation, and storage of food.
- Immunization – Policies aimed at the immunization of a population against infectious diseases. Examples include vaccine programs.
- Building codes – Codes for buildings can fit under public health policy because it ensures buildings are constructed with safe materials and can withstand weight and pressure.
Common Public Health Approaches
1. Injury Prevention
Injuries can often be prevented through public health policies.
Public health professionals often classify injuries into two categories: intentional and unintentional.
Policies implemented to reduce road crashes, poisoning, drowning, falling, burns, violence, or self-harm are all examples of public health policies regarding injury prevention.
Many initiatives have emphasized the role of public health policies in injury prevention (Racioppi & Sethi, 2009, Heath, 2002).
Examples of such policies include changes in road and housing design, the use of safety equipment, seatbelt laws, laws against drunk driving, poison control laws, laws regarding the regulation of lead exposure, and so on.
2. School Health Policy
School Health policies play a vital role in improving the quality of education, reducing the transmission rate of various diseases, and improving the general well-being of schoolchildren.
Such policies promote healthy behavior and habits in school environments.
Examples of such policies include those concerned with healthy eating, sanitation, physical activity, physical education, and so on (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2011).
School health policies aim to inform, support, and direct individuals throughout the school system. They help adolescents improve their health and sanitation habits. They also help reduce the transmission rate of contagious diseases.
3. Toxin Exposure
Exposure to toxic chemicals is one of the most important public health problems worldwide. According to a WHO estimate, 300,000 people died as a result of unintentional poisoning in the year 2000 (World Health Organization, 2004).
Some public health policies are aimed at solving this problem. Different policies try to:
- Reduce the number of exposures and poisonings in the home, outdoor, and indoor environments;
- Detect and eliminate hazardous commercial products through regulatory measures;
- Inform the population about the use of appropriate first aid measures in case of toxic exposure; and
- Improve the quality of care for poisoning victims through education.
Administrative and regulatory public health policies concerning toxic exposure are, along with education and information policies, essential components of preventive activities.
Such measures may be informative actions, sets of rules, heavily sanctioned legislation, and so on (World Health Organization, 2004, p. 5).
4. Emergency Preparedness
Public health emergency preparedness can be defined as the “capability of the public health and public health care systems, communities, and individuals to prevent, protect against, quickly respond to, and recover from health emergencies” (Nelson et al., 2007).
A health emergency is a situation with the scale and timing that threatens to overwhelm the routine capabilities of the public health system.
Public health policies, in the form of laws, regulations, and guidelines, have a profound effect on the general well-being of a population.
Formulation of effective and evidence-based public health policies is a complex practice and is influenced by a variety of social, economic, scientific, and political forces.
The effectiveness of such policies can be seen in cases such as tobacco control, vaccine programs, seatbelt laws, workplace exposure laws, and so on.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2011). School health guidelines to promote healthy eating and physical activity. MMWR. Recommendations and Reports: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Recommendations and Reports, 60(RR-5), 1–76.
Gatseva, P. D., & Argirova, M. (2011). Public health: The science of promoting health. Journal of Public Health, 19(3), 205–206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10389-011-0412-8
Heath, I. (2002). Treating violence as a public health problem. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 325(7367), 726–727.
Joint Task Group on Public Health Human Resources, Advisory Committee on Health Delivery & Human Resources, Advisory Committee on Population Health & Health Security, & Public Health Agency of Canada. (2005). Building the public health workforce for the 21st century: A pan-Canadian framework for public health human resources planning. Public Health Agency of Canada. https://www.deslibris.ca/ID/205185
Nelson, C., Lurie, N., Wasserman, J., & Zakowski, S. (2007). Conceptualizing and Defining Public Health Emergency Preparedness. American Journal of Public Health, 97(Suppl 1), S9–S11. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2007.114496
Oliver, T. R. (2006). The Politics of Public Health Policy. Annual Review of Public Health, 27(1), 195–233. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.publhealth.25.101802.123126
Racioppi, F., & Sethi, D. (2009). Shaping comprehensive policies for injury prevention in Europe. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion, 16(2), 65–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/17457300902836598
Winslow, C.-E. A. (1920). The untilled fields of public health. Science 51:23.
World Health Organization. (2004). Guidelines on the Prevention of Toxic Exposures: Education and Public Awareness Activities. International Labour Organization, United Nations Environmental Programme, World Health Organization.
World Health Organization. (2013). WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: Guidelines for Implementation of Article 5. 3, Articles 8 To 14. World Health Organization.