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What exactly is public health?

This article looks at public health, its main features, and covers the complexity of protecting health, and improving quality of life.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

What is public health?

It is important first of all to unravel what the term ‘public health’ means as it is a complex concept with a range of different meanings and it is a term that is often taken for granted.

In other words, it is easy to assume that there is a ‘common sense’ understanding that public health is concerned with the health of the population, the lifespan of individuals and the extent to which individuals are free from disease.

While this is true, some people might find this approach too ‘simplistic’, as it may imply that public health is medically orientated and only concerned with the control and prevention of epidemics and infectious disease, for example through immunisation and screening.

Viewing public health holistically

A broader and more preferred perspective is one in which public health is viewed holistically, encompassing a concern for well-being, and recognises that health and well-being are influenced by the rich interplay of a wide range of factors.

Debates about the meaning of public health therefore can be focused on how narrow or all-encompassing and broad a term it is.

What is the meaning of ‘the public’?

What about the meaning of the ‘public’? Well, this can be as small as a group of people, or could refer to a community, region, nation or continent but importantly the definition highlights that improving public health requires collective action.

In other words, everyone has a role to play and can play their part.

There are multiple definitions of public health but the one used by the World Health Organization defines public health as:

‘The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health, through the organised efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals’ (Acheson 1988: 1).
Although it is dated, this definition gives us some insight into the role of public health in society.

What are the main features of public health?

The main feature of public health is that it focuses on populations rather than on individuals. In other words, public health is concerned with preventing disease and promoting health and well-being at a population level.
This view holds that population health is not simply the sum of its parts, meaning that by treating enough individuals the health of the public will improve, but greater than the sum of its parts (Arah 2009).

Public health as a ‘science and art’

Drilling further down, Acheson describes public health as a ’science and art’. This not only tells us what public health is but how improved health and well-being can be achieved through the ‘organised efforts … of society’.
This highlights the multidisciplinary nature of public health as it brings together people with a whole range of knowledge and skills, from clinical and non-clinical backgrounds and a range of organisations and sectors, to work collaboratively to benefit population-level health and well-being.
Public health, therefore, is a broad term. Its meaning is complex because protecting health, preventing illness and improving quality of life is a complex process.
While it may be difficult for most nurses to see how they can become involved in public health, it is nevertheless expected that public health will become part of their role.


Acheson, D. (1988) Acheson Report: Independent Inquiry into Inequalities in Health Report. London: The Stationery Office

Arah, O. A. (2009) ‘On the Relationship Between Individual and Population Health’. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. [online] 12 (3), 235-244. available from [18 June 2018]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

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