Public Health


Public health is the science of protecting the safety and improving the health of communities. It includes research, policymaking, and education and more. Public health programs help people live healthy lives; research and understand disease and injury prevention; and prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. 

Preparation and planning at the federal, state, and local level are essential for protecting populations through all types of public health emergencies. This can include natural disasters, outbreaks of infectious diseases, and other catastrophic events. The effects of a public health emergency can be felt across all aspects of an individual’s life, including their health and financial resilience.

Public health professionals work to prevent population-wide health problems, including those that disproportionately harm certain groups. They perform a variety of functions, including:

  • Monitoring a community’s health status to identify potential problems and hazards;
  • Conducting research to find solutions to longstanding and emerging health challenges;
  • Enforcing laws and regulations that promote public health and protect health and safety;
  • Educating the public, including underserved communities, about how they can improve their health status. This includes risk factors for common health problems, behaviors (such as exercise and good nutrition) to reduce these risks, and the importance of preventive care (such as routine screenings and immunizations).
  • Offering and funding community programs that offer health screenings, preventative services, and health-promotion programs. These include nutritional screening and counseling, exercise and weight-control programs, and addiction treatment programs.
  • Tracking and educating the public about infectious disease outbreaks and preventable injuries. This includes the impact of gun violence and its ramifications on public health.

Public health challenges are on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of fully funding public health programs and infrastructure (see also Public Health and COVID-19). A 2020 report from the Trust for America’s Health found that less than 3 percent of overall health care spending goes to public health. Chronic underfunding harms the overall capacity the nation has to promote the health of all people and communities. It can result in a lack of essential public-health infrastructure, which can harm all public health services and programs.

For example, lack of adequate investment in government public health agencies limited our ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, some communities lack enough health professionals to promote positive health outcomes and respond to disease outbreaks. They may also lack systems to monitor outbreaks and share information.

Less than  3 percent of U.S. health care spending goes toward public health. This percentage has decreased since 2000. State spending, for the most part, has declined as well. 

The private sector can also play a role in promoting public health and disseminating accurate information. For example, well-designed, evidence-based, nondiscriminatory workplace wellness programs can improve employees’ health and well-being. This is beneficial not only to workers, but also to private-sector companies. Workplace wellness programs may lower healthcare spending, lower absenteeism, fewer accidents, and better work performance. Smaller employers, however, may face challenges developing and implementing such programs.



Public health promotion

Federal, state, and local policymakers should engage in robust, fully funded public health activities and programs. They should foster positive health outcomes for all members of a community by:

  • promoting healthy behaviors, such as by financing preventive health services and educating the full range of community members on healthy behaviors and risk-reducing behaviors; 
  • preventing and responding to potential public health problems, including infectious disease outbreaks and preventable injuries;
  • funding and supporting community-based strategies to address the social determinants of health.

All levels of government should conduct activities designed to protect, improve, and maintain public health. Policymakers should fully fund public-health research, programs, and infrastructure. Policymakers should develop infrastructure such as provider laboratory and surveillance capacity, and offering provider education about how to promote public health and identify public health threats. 

All levels of government should be prepared to adequately respond to public health crises.

Policymakers should also strengthen state and local capacity to deliver public health services.

Adequate funding

All levels of government should increase funding for public health activities. Funding should focus on:

  • research, public health prevention and promotion programs,
  • environmental and safety standards public and professional health education.

The federal government should adequately fund the Prevention and Public Health Fund.

All levels of government should direct sufficient financial and technological resources toward:

  • solving environmental problems and working cooperatively with the private sector to address environmental concerns;
  • the timely development and manufacture of safe, effective vaccines;
  • research into effective strategies to protect the public from biological attacks; and
  • ensuring key public- and private-sector health care personnel are adequately prepared to respond to public health crises relevant to their areas of practice.

Adequate public health funding must include resources for research and activities related to population health disease prevention and intervention, health promotion and education, health equity, and emergency preparedness and response.

Federal, state, and local public-health strategies to improve public health should focus on broad-based community interventions that promote health and reduce health disparities.

Public health research

Federal and state governments should support research that identifies the effects of health-promoting behaviors on public health, for example, exercise on cardiovascular and cognitive health. They should fund cost-benefit research on health-promoting behaviors regarding both the public and private sectors such as the cost to employers of workers’ inactivity.

Scientific knowledge should undergird public health policymaking. Comprehensive public-health data should be collected, analyzed, interpreted, and disseminated to monitor and improve public health. This includes specific demographic data—including race, ethnicity, spoken language, and geographic location— to understand and reduce health disparities.

Research should include health promotion behaviors.

Sound public health strategies for health promotion, disease prevention, and intervention should be based on evidence and should have proven efficacy. Costs and benefits should be considered but should not be determinative.

Personal responsibility

Officials at all levels of government should help people fulfill their personal responsibility to protect their health by taking advantage of health-education opportunities and affordable and appropriate preventive health measures.

Policymakers at all levels of government should collaborate to develop, fund, implement, and evaluate strategies to protect and improve public health. They should support policies and implement programs that promote healthy behaviors. Federal, state, and local governments and the private sector should provide incentives for people to engage in behaviors that are proven to improve health and strengthen the physical infrastructure that supports such health-promoting behaviors. Policymakers should identify ways to support the implementation of evidence-based, nondiscriminatory workplace wellness programs by small employers.

Public health workforce

All levels of government should fund public health workforce development, including strategies to ensure workforce diversity.

Found in Public Health