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Ministry of Health

Public Health in B.C.

Why is Public Health Important?

Public health is fundamental to 21st century healthcare and shares the same overall goals as the rest of the health care system - reducing premature death and minimizing the effects of disease, disability, and injury. After all, the main intent of public health is to promote a healthier population. This is quintessential to a sustainable health care system, and also provides economic and social benefits for the province, due in part to increased productivity.

There are two underlying principles in public health programs, services and institutions that differ from clinical medicine:

  1. The focus of public health is prevention rather than treatment of diseases; and
  2. Public health addresses the health needs of populations as a whole instead of individuals.

These principles allow public health to work in a complementary fashion to clinical medicine in all of its core functions. Core functions in public health include health promotion and protection, disease prevention, health assessment and disease surveillance.

As an example of disease prevention, health care professionals are actively engaged in counselling and providing pharmaceutical supports to help high-risk individuals quit smoking. Similarly, public health professionals are working with various partners and institutions that range from policymakers to the public to make cigarettes less accessible by regulation. This might include taxation, restriction of advertisements and minimal legal age for purchasing, and health promotion, such as educational and social marketing targeted at encouraging adolescents not to smoke.

One of the most recent examples of public health working in tandem with clinical medicine is the preparation and management of the H1N1 pandemic. Public health was responsible for developing pandemic preparedness protocols and guidelines on federal, provincial, territorial and local levels prior to the emergence of the H1N1 influenza virus.

Throughout the pandemic, public health carried out active surveillance of H1N1 activity, coordinated H1N1 vaccine clinics and assessment centres, and communicated current information to healthcare professionals. Healthcare professionals also had an integral part in pandemic preparedness and management by regularly reviewing H1N1 updates and protocols, providing clinical expertise to guide and inform pandemic management policies, and delivering health care services to the public.

Clearly, public health and clinical medicine are vital partners in a well-functioning healthcare system, which is ultimately imperative to both individual and population health.

Research has shown that good health is fundamental to leading a healthy, productive life. Public health focuses on heath promotion and health protection, as well as disease and injury prevention because healthier British Columbians will create a solid foundation for a sustainable health care system and provide economic and social benefits for the province.

One of the most important components of public health is its reliance on multi-sectoral partnerships. Multi-sectoral partnerships ensure that everyone has a role to play in public health activities and programs. This may include a new mother concerned about her baby’s hearing, an organization advocating reductions in childhood obesity, or a business group looking to develop healthy policies in the workplace.

Improving the health of our populations often requires changing personal health habits. Health care providers work with high-risk populations in an effort to change these behaviours. However, bringing about change takes time and requires a combination of education, community development and healthy public policy.

Public health professionals and organizations are adept at assessing and analyzing population health issues, interpreting evidence and research to guide the development of health policies and programs, and working with a variety of partners to address population health issues.