What is Public Health?
By Staff

Public health is the study of disease in the broader context of social organizations. The field draws on experts from the basic sciences such as chemistry, psychology, and mathematics as well as medical specialties such as infectious disease, pediatrics, obstetrics, and environmental medicine. In addition to preparation at least to a bachelor’s degree-level in one of the sciences, an additional two to three years of graduate school is required to earn the minimum entry-level qualification, the Master of Public Health (MPH) degree

To some extent, public health has always been a concern of even ancient societies. As examples, archeology has demonstrated that as early as the 1st Century BCE the Romans were well-aware of the importance of disposing of human waste in preventing outbreaks of disease and many private homes were built with running-water sewage disposal in addition to the numerous public latrines and bath houses. During the plague epidemics of the Middle Ages the practice of promptly burying the dead, although it had no effect in reducing plague deaths, proved valuable in controlling other diseases.

As a profession, modern public health is usually considered to have begun in the 1850s when John Snow was able to identify a polluted public water supply as the source of a cholera outbreak in London, England. As the germ theory of disease replaced previous non-scientific beliefs later in that century, diseases such as Yellow Fever and typhus were brought under control by drainage of swamplands and improved urban hygiene, respectively. In the twentieth century, the virtual eradication of both smallpox and polio are considered monumental triumphs of public health practices in controlling previously epidemic diseases.

Modern public health practices draw from a variety of sciences such as chemistry and mathematics. Again as examples, modern chemical laboratory techniques have allowed detection of very small amounts of different substances in the environment. Many of these substances were later demonstrated to have a role in diseases such as cancer and heavy metal toxicity, e.g. lead poisoning. Public health workers also use techniques such as statistics and mathematical models to understand to understand the prevalence of different diseases and to understand how diseases such as Swine Flu spread through the population.

Many of the questions studied by modern public health relate to the “classic” or “traditional” practice of medicine, such as ‘What causes this disease?’ or ‘How does this disease spread from one victim to another?’ To answer these questions, many public health workers are physicians with training in both the medical sub-specialties or nurses with advanced training devoted to public health techniques. Other members of the profession include dieticians, civil and environmental engineers, microbiologists, and even veterinarians.

There are many remaining challenges facing today’s public health workers, particularly in the understanding and control of well-known infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and typhoid fever. Other “emerging” diseases, such as the influenza or Ebola/Marburg viruses, could pose a significant risk to entire populations should these pathogens spread beyond remote locations. Another area within the field of public health is the development of successful vaccines against these, and other, conditions.

In summary, and despite or technologically-advanced societies, public health workers still perform a valuable function in assuring that disease should no longer concern the typical citizen.

Interested in becoming a public health professional? Be sure to check out our rankings of public health degrees, including the best online MPH programs.