The World Health Organization (WHO) defines public health as “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts of society”.
Public health aims to provide the maximum benefit for the largest number of people, according to the WHO. In other words, public health is concerned with promoting and protecting the health of entire populations and communities. This could be populations living in a local city, an entire country or a region.
Professionals working in public health try to prevent problems from happening and promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviours. This can mean conducting research to inform policies that support public health, implementing educational programs, or working to create the conditions in which people can be healthy.
Public health also promotes healthcare equity and accessibility.
Depending on their role, professionals working in public health perform a range of different tasks, including;
- Researching and monitoring the health status of a population to identify potential health problems and solutions
- Developing policies and frameworks that support health efforts
- Educating, informing and empowering people about health issues, particularly those underserved or at risk
- Mobilising and connecting partnerships to collectively reduce health problems and inequalities.
What are health inequalities?
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes health inequalities as “differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups”. For example, differences in life expectancy rates between people from affluent and deprived areas.
A certain amount of variation in health, based on biological or genetic factors is to be expected in the population. But health inequalities, or health inequities, refer specifically to differences in health between social groups. The WHO believes these are avoidable, unjust and unfair, and could be reduced by the right mix of government policies.
These health inequities arise from the social conditions in which people are born, grow, live work and age. The kind of housing and environments we live in, the health or education services we have access to, the incomes we generate and the type of work we do, for instance, can all influence our health and the lifestyle decisions we make.
A range of factors has been identified as social determinants of health and these generally include: inequality; poverty; social exclusion; income; public policies, health services; employment; education; the built environment; health behaviours or lifestyles; social and community supports.
People who are less well off or socially excluded tend to fare badly in relation to these social determinants. For example they may have lower levels of education and income, fewer employment opportunities, live in poorer housing or less healthy environments with access to poorer services than those who are better off – all of which are linked to poorer health.
Other forms of inequality, based on ethnicity, gender or geography for example, can compound health inequalities generated by socio-economic inequalities. This means that some groups are particularly badly affected.
The Institute of Public Health in Ireland (IPH) provides research, policy and leadership to promote health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities on the island of Ireland, North and South