I eat, sleep, and breathe public health. Yet, the question I am most frequently asked is what is public health? The definition of public health according to the American Public Health Association is “Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.” However, this definition in my opinion is very broad and does not truly paint the picture of what someone working in public health does on a day-to-day basis.
The way I look at public health is this: you go to your doctor when you feel sick. At this point you already have a disease and the role of your doctor is to give you medication to make you feel better. This is how our current medical system functions. However, the goal of public health is to be proactive instead of reactive and ensure you have access to the proper resources to feel better. We also work to help prevent disease before it manifests. As public health professionals, we look at the bigger picture and see what factors in your life are causing your illness. Is it something you are eating, something in the water you drink, or is the illness caused by contact walking down the street? Once we determine the cause of disease, it is our job to find ways to prevent that disease or to shorten the course of the illness.
Specifically, in public health, I am studying epidemiology, which is a fancy word for someone who researches the causation of diseases, as well as frequency of newly diagnosed cases, and prevention to keep the outbreak from spreading. One of my favorite topics covered this semester is the Life Course Model. This model demonstrates how something at one stage of your life can affect your health (positively and negatively) at another stage in your life. For example, a child born into a household that provides healthy meals and promotes regular exercise is less likely to struggle with chronic illness as an adult, whereas a child born into a household that struggles to provide healthy meals and doesn’t promote regular exercise is more likely to struggle with diabetes or high blood pressure. Looking at causes of illness at various life stages can help public health practitioners enhance interventions that target the cause of disease, and develop preventative treatments.
Another aspect of public health is emergency management. Public health workers respond to displaced individuals who need basic necessities (food, water, and shelter) after natural disasters such as fires or hurricanes. They make sure flood victims have access to medical treatment, monitor potential sources of infection during crises, and help medical professionals prepare for possible outbreaks. During flooding, public health workers look for sources of potential large-scale waterborne infections or diseases which may contact evacuees. Medical professionals can better equip themselves with proper medications and supplies to treat infected patients and prevent its spread to others by knowing the most probable illnesses.
From disaster relief efforts and providing patients with the best medical education and resources to epidemics such as gun violence and obesity, public health is all around us.