June 18, 2014
Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.
Public health encompasses all organised public as well as private measures that are put in place to promote health, prevent disease and extend the life of the population as a whole. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations as opposed to protecting the health of individual patients or focusing on individual diseases. These populations can be as small as a local neighbourhood or as large as an entire country.
Despite major improvements in healthcare over the years, there are still glaring disparities in some parts of the world. For example, studies show that although the average global life expectancy has increased from 50 years to 67 years since 1960, children born in Swaziland in Africa have an average life expectancy of only 32 years. Compare this with Japan where the average life expectancy is 82 years and you will see the shocking contrast.
As the world gets smaller through international travel and migration, health issues are no longer confined to national borders. An outbreak of any contagious disease in one part of the world can spread rapidly across the globe within months as was seen with the SARS outbreak in China in 2002. Within eight months of the outbreak, there were almost 8500 probable cases and a little less than 1000 deaths across 29 different countries. Those statistics can be terrifying and underscore the importance of public health.
Working in public health can be a hugely rewarding career choice. By looking at the health of the entire population you can understand, analyse and influence the numerous factors that affect people’s health and wellbeing. These could include environmental, cultural, social, structural, economic and political factors.
While there’s no denying that clinical medicine and nursing are vital for helping and supporting individuals when they are ill or injured, working in public health provides a different set of opportunities where you can contribute to reducing the larger causes of ill health and improving the health and wellbeing of the entire population. As a public health professional, you would work to develop effective systems to protect people’s health from human or environmental emergencies and ensure that the existing health services are the most appropriate.
There are several different ways that this can be done at local, national and international levels.
At local levels you would work with individuals and families, local communities and also with local health services, local authorities, independent organisations and charities that deliver services to individuals, families and communities.
At national or regional levels you would work with organisations that develop health policies, such as government departments, social care organisations, head offices for health services and charitable organisations.
At international levels you would mainly work with organisations such as the United Nations (UN), World Health Organisation (WHO) and other charitable organisations that focus mainly on improving health outcomes in low or middle income groups.
The WHO is the main public health standard setting organisation on a global level. They set the standards and norms for medicine, nutrition, water and sanitation. Other UN bodies working on public health related guidelines include UNFPA for maternal and reproductive health, UNAIDS for HIV&AIDS and UNICEF for child health.
Maternal and reproductive health, child health and HIV & AIDS are just a few issues that need to be tackled when working to improve health. For future public health physicians there are several other challenges in store, including the effects of climate change on health.