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What is Public Health and Why is it Important?

Aug. 4, 2022

Jill Rush-Kolodzey, MD, MPH, DrPH, is the program director, clinical associate professor of public health at LSU Health Shreveport.

What is Public Health and Why is it Important?

It is difficult to count the number of times I have been asked:

  • “What is public health?”
  • “Why is public health important?”

These two very straightforward questions are not so easily answered. The Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) created a YouTube video in 2008 entitled “This is Public Health.” Students interviewed various individuals, asking them the same simple question: What is public health? The video enforces that the answer to this question is not always easy to articulate.

First, let us differentiate between medicine and public health. The fields overlap, but there are some key differences. Medicine focuses on treating an illness or condition. Often this is referred to as the doctor-patient relationship. On the other hand, public health relates to the health and well-being of a population to prevent disease and promote health through community based approaches.

The partial goal of public health is to prevent as many people from needing to visit a doctor due to illness or disease. To better understand public health, it is essential to review the past, discuss the present and look to the future.

The Evolution of Public Health

Historically, past initiatives related to public health have promoted the health and well-being of the population. This has resulted in the prevention of communicable diseases, healthier living conditions, and longer life expectancies.

For example, infectious diseases like measles and smallpox, documented as early as 910, led to untimely deaths of the young and old alike. However, through dedicated researchers like Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, and others, advances like antitoxins and vaccines were developed in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These treatments prevent diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis and ultimately resulted in the eradication of smallpox.

At the same time, America experienced advances in public sanitation with proper disposal of waste and promotion of clean drinking water. These public health initiatives laid a solid foundation for enhancing the health and well-being of the population, resulting in longer and healthier life expectancies.

Today, researchers and agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strive to discover additional measures that promote the health of the population.

For example, in 1945, water fluoridation began in Michigan to prevent dental caries. This one public health measure, now practiced throughout the United States, has been identified by the CDC as one of the most outstanding public health achievements of the 20th Century.

Additional public health initiatives which have positively impacted the population include family planning, healthier mothers and babies, immunizations, motor vehicle safety, safe and healthier foods, tobacco as a health hazard, and workplace safety (CDC.gov, 2022).

COVID-19's Impact on Public Health

While many have benefited from these advances in public health, we cannot move forward without recognizing our current public health situation related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In public health, an epidemic is recognized as an unusual increased occurrence of an illness within a defined timeframe. When an epidemic becomes expansive and infects individuals in multiple countries or worldwide, it becomes reclassified as a pandemic. Today, we find ourselves living in a pandemic that began in December 2019 in Wuhan China.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless researchers, patient care providers, and local, state, national and international agencies have worked tirelessly to break the cycle of this disease, preventing the spread and associated loss of life. As of the writing of this article, there have been 79.8 million cases and 975 thousand COVID-related deaths in the United States, with 1.23 million cases in Louisiana and 17,076 associated deaths. Unfortunately, the actual infection rate and death toll may be much higher due to underreported cases (CDC.gov)

As we move forward in 2022 and beyond, our health care system has established new priorities for the early detection of emerging viral threats resulting in the efficient implementation of prevention measures through testing and vaccinations. Integral to this process is training public health care workers to meet the health care needs of our population. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2020 and 2030, the market for healthcare workers will grow by 2.6 million new jobs (BLS.gov, 2022).

Master of Public Health Program

To help with workforce development, LSUHS and LSUS have collaborated on a Master of Public Health Program. The LSUS/LSUHS MPH Program was initially established in 2006 with evening classes. Subsequently, at the beginning of the pandemic, the program was expanded to encompass two formats. Currently, this 42-credit master's degree accredited by the Council on Education in Public Health (CEPH), offers two tracks, face-to-face evening classes in the traditional semester format and an accelerated 100% online format with 7-week semesters.

Whether individuals are looking to begin a career in public health, using the program as a conduit to a terminal degree, or wanting to enhance their knowledge for their current job, this program provides an opportunity to guide and mentor students to achieve their goals and aspirations for a career in public health.

Therefore, to answer the final question, why is it important? Public health protects and improves communities by preventing the spread of diseases and promoting healthy lifestyles in a clean and safe environment resulting in decreased infant and child mortality and increased life expectancy worldwide.

Jill Rush-Kolodzey, MD, MPH, DrPH, is the program director, clinical associate professor of public health at LSU Health Shreveport.

Learn more about the Bachelor of Public Health

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