If you were asked to write down a definition of public health, what would you write?
One textbook definition is that public health "consists of that set of activities that society embraces and supports that will raise the health of a population to the highest possible level."
Every April since 1995, communities nationwide have joined together to celebrate National Public Health Week (NPHW). And while each NPHW has a different theme and is observed with different events, there are always two common threads: public health and prevention. It is, in short, a celebration of raising the nation's health to the highest possible level.
NPHW 2013 is April 1-7 and this year's theme is "Public Health is ROI: Save Lives, Save Money." Much like the business world, ROI indicates the return on investments. Supporting evidence-based public health programs will result in healthier communities and reduced cost in treating diseases.
So, what is public health?
According to William Lambert, Ph.D., associate professor, head of the Division of Epidemiology, and Director of Education with Public Health and Preventive Medicine (PHPM) at OHSU,"Public Health is a combination of the sciences, skills, and beliefs to maintain and improve the health of all people through collective and social actions. Public health can refer to social institutions, a discipline, and a practice."
Tom Becker, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of PHPM, said, "You are surrounded every day by a large and mostly hidden army of public health practitioners who are watching over your health: keeping water supplies safe, monitoring our restaurants and food supplies, quickly evaluating epidemics that threaten our individual and population health.Public health officials are primarily funded by local, state, or federal governments – by you, the taxpayers. That represents a societal investment that we elect to make.And we have greatly benefitted from some of the investments in public health over the past 100 years, including:
- Widespread vaccine coverage
- Safer workplaces
- Motor vehicle safety
- Healthier mothers and babies
- Safer and healthier foods
- Decline in deaths from cardiovascular diseases
Who knows what other diseases are in our future that public health efforts will help to address and eliminate? None of us could have easily predicted the HIV epidemic, or e coli tainted beef, or anthrax attacks, yet public health officials rapidly came into the picture and helped put interventions into place to address these threats.Public health officials are also addressing other types of epidemics that we did not predict, like obesity, type two diabetes, substance abuse…the list goes on and on."
But public health isn't just research and large-scale initiatives. There are many places in your everyday life where you can observe public health in action, such as when you wash your hands, cough into your shoulder, wear a bike helmet, apply sunscreen, get immunizations, exercise, or go to annual wellness exams. You can see it in the world around you, too; look around. In your community you can see community gardens, no smoking signs, needle exchange programs, county health departments, and local restaurants – which are subject to rigorous health inspections. You see public health in the news. In Portland, for example, we hear regular discussion about water fluoridation, the public health benefit of paid sick leave for workers, taxing cigarettes, and so much more. National and global public health is easy to spot as well – such as government organizations (e.g. Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services) and voluntary organizations (e.g. Red Cross, Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders, American Cancer Society, and Planned Parenthood).
OHSU and PHPM are champions of public health initiatives, research, and education. From free flu shots for employees, to Let's Get Healthy!, to the Oregon Master of Public Health program, a collaborative training program shared by OHSU, Portland State, and Oregon State University.The OMPH trains students to conduct research and interventions to improve the health of large groups of people.So far, the OMPH program has graduated almost 1300 students since its inception in 1994, thereby substantially increasing the public health workforce in this region.
"At the OHSU School of Medicine, public health research and training activities are strongly supported by our administrators," said Dr. Becker. "They recognize that public health research and teaching are critical to the advancement of our societal well being.We are aware, however, that public health efforts to combat diseases often occur with key insights and collaboration from laboratory scientists, clinicians, biostatisticians, informatics experts, and others who make substantial scientific contributions to various problems.Making advancements in public health—like in other areas of biomedical research—is often a team sport. We all have a role in supporting a strong public health system and in putting prevention to work in our lives."
In short, thank you for being a part of the system that makes the public healthy.
Join PHPM as the department sponsors several exciting lectures and film screenings in the OHSU Auditorium during NPHW. On April 3, from 7 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., there will be a screening of Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, CNN's Visionary Documentary on Health Care Reform. An audience discussion will follow the screening. And on April 4, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., come to an evening with Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. (Both of these events are co-sponsored by the Coalition of Local Health Officials, the Oregon Public Health Association, the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Public Health Institute, and the American Public Health Association.)
Visit the PHPM website for a full schedule of National Public Health week events that Public Health and Preventive Medicine is sponsoring.
And thanks for celebrating National Public Health Week with us!
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Public Health Resources
Learn more about National Public Health Week.
Learn more about the history of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.