What is Public Health?

Public Health vs. Medical Care

There are lots of ways both private medical providers and local governments help keep residents healthy and safe. But understanding the differences between public health and medical care can be confusing, so we’re breaking down the main differences below to help you better understand the types of public health options Arapahoe County is considering as we build our own health department.

In general:

Medical CarePublic Health
Focused on finding a cure or treatment for disease or injury Focused on preventing disease or injury 
Focused on individualsFocused on groups and communities
Uses behavior change Uses policy and environmental change 
Is needed some of the timeIs needed all of the time

 

Successful public health programs help communities thrive. These programs help prevent disease, reduce accidents, and encourage safety. The Centers for Disease Control has identified some specific successes of public health that include:

  1. Vaccine-preventable diseases—Vaccines, including those for rotavirus, HPV and tetanus, have resulted in fewer hospitalizations, deaths, and health-care costs associated with vaccine-preventable diseases.
  2. Prevention and control of infection disease—Targeted prevention efforts have been effective in controlling the spread of infectious diseases.
  3. Tobacco control—Efforts like those regulating the purchase and use of tobacco have substantially reduced the number of people who smoke. Smoking has been associated with increased rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and COPD.
  4. Maternal and infant health—Improvements in technology and screening of newborns for specific diseases have led to earlier life-saving treatment and intervention.
  5. Motor vehicle safety—Regulation interventions, like those requiring seat belts and car seats for children or addressing impaired drivers, have led to fewer people dying or being seriously injured while traveling by car. 
  6. Cardiovascular disease prevention—Deaths from heart disease and strokes have declined as corresponding risk factors, like smoking and elevated cholesterol, have also been reduced through public health efforts.
  7. Occupational safety—Education on working conditions, such as safe patient lifting in health care settings or outreach to families working in agriculture to help parents to match chores with their child's development and physical capabilities, have reduced workplace injuries.
  8. Cancer prevention—Increases in screening, like those for colon, breast and cervical cancer, along with more effective screenings, have reduced deaths.
  9. Childhood lead poisoning prevention—The number of states with lead poisoning prevention laws, and enforcement of those laws, increased and the prevalence of lead poisoning was subsequently reduced.
  10. Public health preparedness and response—Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, efforts to expand the capacity of systems to respond to public health threats. For example, treatments were quickly delivered to treat people during a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

History of Public Health

Public health efforts date back to ancient times, with a focus on sanitation, distribution of clean water and even recycling. Much more recently, public health activities have been defined as assessment, planning, and policy development. The COVID-19 pandemic has called the attention of the general public to the role of public health in their daily lives.

Timeline of public health. Click to access a PDF with links Opens in new window

Specific to Arapahoe County, the Tri-County Health Department has served as the health agency for both Arapahoe and Adams counties since 1948. Douglas County officially joined in 1966. 

On a state level the Department of Public Health and Environment serves public health needs; however, every county is also required to have a public health department. 

Funding Public Health Efforts

Public health funding comes from a wide variety of sources.  According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the following are typical proportions of funding sources for local public health departments similar to Arapahoe County’s size and location:

  • Federal sources: 28%
  • Local sources: 24%
  • State sources: 22%
  • Medicaid/Medicare: 9%
  • Non-clinical fees and fines: 8%
  • Private foundations: 2%
  • All other sources: 7%