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What is Public Health?

Students looking at a beaker

No profession has more impact on improving lives on a grand scale than public health.

From overpopulation to climate change, emerging infectious diseases to foodborne illnesses, the world faces tremendous health challenges now and in the future. Public health addresses those grand challenges head-on — finding ways to deliver clean water, make health care affordable, stop infectious diseases before an epidemic begins, and create more livable cities.

When you choose public health you are “in it for the mission.” You are dedicated to taking on the world’s most serious public health problems and to discovering creative and far-reaching solutions.

The Critical Role of Public Health

Public health is often linked to other health sciences, and though all health sciences are essential and complementary, public health stands apart in three key ways:

  1. Prevention: Public health stops suffering before it starts.
  2. Populations: Public health seeks solutions for entire communities rather than treating disease and injury one patient at a time.
  3. Partnerships: Public health research is built on partnerships to explore the root causes of and solutions to persistent or emerging health and policy challenges. With our partners, we also move our research into action.
Learn more about the field from the American Public Health Association.

Important Public Health Contributions

Public health is essential to preventing disease and injury, protecting populations, and invigorating people to lead healthy lives through research, policy, and health behavior strategies. Well-known outcomes that can be attributed in large part to public health include:

  • 2 million people saved each year from smallpox
  • Clean, potable water from the tap
  • 13,000 lives saved each year by seat belts
  • Smoke-free environments
  • 28 percent drop in the nation’s smoking rates in the past 50 years
  • Increase in average life expectancy from 48 years (1900) to 71 years (2013)
  • More effective, nimble responses to global pandemics

The Urgency for Public Health is Now

The world is changing fast, and the School of Public Health is at the forefront of efforts focused on ensuring good health and well-being for all people—especially underserved and underrepresented populations:

  • Rapid population growth. The world’s population will swell to a projected 8.5 billion in 2030 (1.2 billion more than today), making it ever more costly and overwhelming to treat health issues after they develop.
  • Unprecedented rates of an aging society. In 1950 the population of people 0-4 years was nearly double that of people 65 and older. By 2050, that statistic will be flipped, creating more urgency to find ways for people to age in healthier, more dignified ways.
  • Our global economy is producing more diverse communities with broader health needs and ease of transportation is increasing the spread of diseases.
  • A warming climate is causing oceans to rise — forcing people to live in more densely populated areas — and is creating more opportunities for emerging infectious diseases.

Prevalence of chronic disease. According to the CDC, 7 out of 10 U.S. deaths are caused by chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. By 2030, that number is expected to increase by 37 percent in the U.S. and chronic illnesses are a growing problem in the developing world.

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