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What is Public Health?

by Emily Sokol, MPH

Associate Director of Patient Education, The National Library of Patient Rights and Advocacy

 

Since 2020, public health has been in the spotlight of every news station, newspaper, and social media newsfeed. But public health encompasses so much more than COVID-19. Public health is the science and practice of improving the health of populations. While this includes pandemic identification and response, public health is so much more. Public health is an initiative for healthy lunches in a local school district, a state-based policy to increase the safety and accessibility of bike lanes, and a nation-wide vaccine campaign to prevent the flu.

 

Traditionally, public health is divided into five subdivisions:

  • Epidemiology

  • Biostatistics

  • Behavioral science

  • Social and environmental determinants of health

  • Health policy and advocacy

 

What is epidemiology?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define epidemiology as “the method used to find the causes of health outcomes and diseases in populations.” In other words, it is the study and investigation of how disease spreads. Examples of epidemiology in action include isolating the restaurant where a food-born disease outbreak began or investigating risk factors in cancer patients. Epidemiology aims to understand how diseases start, exacerbate, and are eradicated.

 

What is biostatistics?

Biostatistics and epidemiology are closely related, as biostatistics helps to inform epidemiological investigation. The statistical science can help to identify when disease levels peak beyond “normal” to let public health officials know when there is risk for an epidemic. Biostatistics is also used to understand concrete risk factors for disease and demographic factors that put an individual at great risk for disease. Analysis from biostatisticians can also support public health planning and program evaluation.

 

What is behavioral science?

Behavioral science is the branch of public health that aims to understand what drives individuals to certain health behaviors and how public health problems impact an individual. Common behavioral science initiatives include smoking cessation, weight loss, and exercise programs. These programs work to improve healthy behavior in individuals and prevent unhealthy behaviors from starting or continuing.

 

What are social and environmental determinants of health?

Social and environmental determinants of health are non-clinical factors that impact an individual’s health. Social determinants of health can include where someone lives, their access to healthy food options, and their education. These factors may not appear to impact an individual’s health, but imagine the following situation: a woman living in a rental complex that has not been updated since lead paint regulations became law. The nearest “grocery store” is a convenience mart down the street that carries mostly non-perishable food items. In this example, the woman has greater barriers to overcome to maintain and promote positive health outcomes. She has less access to healthy food options and a housing situation that might contribute to negative health outcomes. In this example, her social determinants of health may impact her health outcomes.

 

Environmental determinants of health are similar non-clinical factors that impact a person’s health such as the community they live in. Do they live near a freeway where they are more susceptible to breathing in toxic chemicals from cars? Does their neighborhood have sidewalks for safe walking or bike lanes? When in a clean, safe, healthy environment, there are fewer barriers to good health.

 

What is health policy and advocacy?

Advocacy promotes positive public health policies at a state, local, and federal level. These policies can include traditional public health practices such as mandatory vaccination for all school-aged children and mandatory insurance coverage for preventative health screenings. But these policies can also be more nuanced, tackling environmental, social, and political issues that impact an individual’s health. 

 

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Emily Sokol, MPH graduated from Brown University with a master's degree in public health and Boston College with a bachelor's degree in English. Emily has worked across the public health field in patient education, journalism and event organizing, government contracting, and care management. Blending her passions for public health and writing, Emily helps The National Library of Patient Rights and Advocacy raise awareness of the public health issues that affect us all. 

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What is The Public Health Initiative?

The Public Health Initiative is a project of The National Library of Patient Rights and Advocacy to bring attention to the many healthcare sociological issues facing the American public. Through personal reflections and commentaries, interviews with experts in the world of public health, and research projects, the staff of the PHI will dedicate its talents and expertise to addressing these issues and offering solutions for consideration. 

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