What is the distinction between Public Health and Clinical Health Professions?

I’ve been immersed in the public health world for so long, sometimes I forget that many people don’t know the answer to this question. It’s a common lament among public health professionals that nobody understands what we do until something goes wrong. If we’re doing our jobs right, the water is clean, the air is breathable, the factories and the food supply are safe. But then along comes a disease outbreak, and suddenly everybody wants to talk to us!

The easiest way to explain public health is that it deals with health from the perspective of populations, not individuals. The clinical healthcare provider—your doctor, nurse, or dentist—helps you with your own personal healthcare issues. Let’s say you have asthma. It’s the clinical care provider who listens to you describe your symptoms. He or she does the necessary tests, makes the diagnosis, and prescribes the right medicines. You go home breathing better.

The public health approach is different. Public health takes a look at the whole neighborhood (or city, county, state, etc.) and figures out how many people have asthma and what’s putting them at risk. Then, public health professionals get to work figuring out how to reduce those exposures and cut down on the number of new asthma cases. Public health is also concerned with whether the people with asthma have access to doctors and are getting good care. If the folks on our side do their jobs right, the whole neighborhood breathes easier.

If you want to know some of the other things that public health professionals think about, you’ll find a wealth of information at APHA.org. The website WhatIsPublicHealth.org is another great place to start.