What is public health, and why is it so important?

Public health issues are seemingly always in the news – from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act by the Trump administration, to pharmaceutical price gouging scandals. That’s because public health affects everyone – by definition, it’s the health of the population of a country or area. When public health is discussed in government or in the press, it’s usually with regards to the need to monitor, regulate, and promote health by the state in order to ensure a healthy populace (and how effective those efforts are). This requires identifying risks that affect different people and finding the best ways to minimize them.

Why should we care about public health, and what can be done to ensure that everyone has the best chance of living a long, healthy, and fulfilling life?

Infectious disease prevention

A key focus of public health debate is on access to drugs such as antibiotics and vaccinations.

The vaccination debate is such a hot issue because when people make a decision on whether or not they will vaccinate their child, it affects a great number of other people. That’s because of herd immunity – the concept that when enough people are immune to a disease (naturally or through vaccination), the disease’s potential to spread is limited. When people choose not to vaccinate their kids, it has implications far beyond their own children. A key focus for the future is therefore likely to be on vaccination education and the dispelling of dangerous myths that can compromise herd immunity.

While access to drugs in the US is good by global standards, other Western countries are bemused by the high costs that US citizens pay for drugs – highlighted by several high-profile price gouges by big pharma. As an integral part of infectious disease prevention, it’s likely that drug affordability will form a central part of the public health conversation for decades to come.


Even if you’re not sick right now, it’s simply a matter of time before something does happen as contraction of disease worsens with age. When that time comes, it’s the ongoing debate on the mechanisms of the public health system – and whether or not they are working effectively – that will shape what kind of care you get. With an aging population both globally and in the US, more people than ever will depend on health care for longer, so it’s important to discuss and plan for those issues now – before it becomes a situation that can’t be dealt with adequately.

Level of adequate care

A UN health care study from 2013 predicted that the world will be short of 12.9 million health workers by 2035. According to the paper, the key driver of that shortage is an aging health workforce, with many health care workers retiring after years of service. At the other end of the equation, there are not enough new workers entering the workforce to replace them.

It’s therefore important to ensure that an adequate number of people gain the proper health care qualifications in order to enter the workforce. This includes qualifications in public health, such as the University of Arizona’s master’s in public health.

Lifestyle and preventable disease

Smoking, obesity, and alcohol abuse are all preventable issues that greatly affect public health across the world, including in the US. Many of these issues are connected to lifestyle and culture; the US, in particular, is often cited as having a poor diet, which in turn is blamed for high rates of obesity. Changing cultural attitudes to food, and education on making better lifestyle choices, therefore form an important part of public health discussion.

It’s a complex issue that involves a number of factors, and achieving the required change can be more difficult than simply educating the public. For example, there has been a push toward greater participation in youth sports, but there is a problem with large numbers of children quitting sports by age 13. Fewer young people now smoke than ever, but 5.6 million of today’s teenagers are still expected to die early from tobacco-related disease. While drinking among high school students is declining, the figures show that one in six are still binge drinking, which brings with it both long-term and short-term health concerns.

Clearly, there is still much work to be done in order to curtail preventable disease in future years. It’s yet another area of public health that will benefit by increasing the numbers of students taking up studies in public health and health care-related fields.