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School of Public Health
School of Public Health

University of Washington School of Public Health

What Is Public Health?

Ensuring clean air and water; disease prevention; screening for health risks; dealing with obesity, violence, and depression -- these are just some of the ways the students and faculty of the UW School of Public Health are making the world safer and healthier.

Public health carries out its mission through organized, interdisciplinary efforts that address the multiple determinants of health — biological; behavioral; environmental; cultural; social, family and community networks; living and working conditions; etc. — in communities and populations at risk for disease and injury. Its mission is achieved through the application of health promotion and disease prevention technologies and interventions designed to improve and enhance quality of life.

Health promotion and disease prevention technologies encompass a broad array of functions and expertise, including the three core public health functions:

  • identify health problems and priorities through assessment and monitoring of the health of communities and populations at risk;
  • formulating public policies, in collaboration with community and government leaders, designed to prioritize and solve identified local and national health problems;
  • assuring that all populations have access to appropriate and cost-effective care, including health promotion and disease prevention services, and evaluation of the effectiveness of that care.

How is Public Health different from other health professions?

While public health is comprised of many professional disciplines such as medicine, dentistry, nursing, optometry, nutrition, social work, environmental sciences, health education, health services administration, and the behavioral sciences, its activities focus on entire populations rather than on individual patients.

Doctors treat individual patients one-on-one for a specific disease or injury. Thus, patients need medical care only part of the time, when they are ill. Public health professionals, on the other hand, monitor and diagnose the health concerns of entire communities and promote healthy practices and behaviors in individuals to keep our populations healthy. Communities need public health all of the time in order to stay healthy.

This population-based approach to health

  • assures our drinking and recreational waters are safe
  • prevents pollution of our air and land through enforcement of regulatory controls and management of hazardous wastes
  • eradicates life threatening diseases such as smallpox and polio
  • controls and prevents infectious diseases and outbreaks such as measles, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and SARS
  • reduces death and disability due to unintentional injuries through the formulation of policies designed to protect the safety of the public, such as seat belt and worker safety laws
  • facilitates community action to improve mental health and reduce substance misuse and social violence
  • promotes healthy lifestyles to prevent chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes
  • educates populations at risk to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and infant mortality
  • promotes oral health
  • evaluates the effectiveness of clinical and community-based interventions

"Health care is vital to all of us some of the time, but public health is vital to all of us all of the time."

C. Everett Koop