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Pandemic View: What is Public Health?


Irrelevant and uninteresting are words that describe how most healthcare professionals view the subject of public health. Long ago, PH was a sleepy, required class just when we were anxious to begin our clinical experience. How perspective has suddenly changed. Beginning one month ago, public health became front page news and will continue commanding that coveted locale.


COVID-19 provokes this urgent reexamination. What is public health? Broadly, it’s the field that analyzes and promotes the well-being of entire populations. It is largely altruistic, comprehensive, and at times by necessity even political. In contrast to the PH approach, most all healthcare around the globe is finely focused on the needs and interests of individuals. Healthcare tends follow the priorities and patterns established by economic systems, and where capitalism abounds, so does individual-focused healthcare.


But in times of existential crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, even the most strongly capitalistic systems may re-prioritize to emphasize the health of the public. Common good – in this case saving as many lives as possible from COVID-19 – becomes the highest value. Consistent with this value, economic life, education pursuits, recreation and social activities, are all for a time being relinquished as PH leaders strive to control the outbreak.


Months from now this particular crisis will abate, concern about PH will subside, and the other components of our societies will regain their former vibrance. And in the back ground, PH professionals will continue to promote the well-being of our populations, and when required move again into highest priority.


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