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Public Health


Public health has been both broadly and narrowly defined, usually as a function of its political influence. A short definition by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) is commonly used by public health professionals: “what we, as a society, do collectively to assure the conditions for people to be healthy.” COMM. FOR THE STUDY OF FUTURE OF PUBLIC HEALTH, IOM, THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC HEALTH 19 (1988). Even more succinct is “Collective action for sustained population-wide health improvement.” Robert Beaglehole et al., Public Health in the New Era: Improving Health Through Collective Action, 363 LANCET 2084, 2084 (2004). “Population health” is sometimes used as a synonym for public health, but is a distinct specialty that grew out of demography. See, e.g., David Mechanic, Who Shall Lead: Is There a Future for Population Health?, 28 J. HEALTH POL., POL’Y & L. 421 (2003).

Broad definitions offer a more accurate description, as in the classic definition by C. E. A. Winslow:

Public Health is the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community effort for the sanitation of the environment, the control of communicable infections, the education of the individual in personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing services for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery to insure everyone a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health, so organizing these benefits as to enable every citizen to realize his birthright of health and longevity. Charles E. A. Winslow, The Untilled Fields of Public Health, 51 SCIENCE 23, 30 (1920).

This broad description still accurately depicts the wide range of activities of people who work in the field of public health. It is also consistent with the broad range of laws enacted in the name of public health. Given such a broad scope, public health might be equated with any public policy that serves in any way to prevent physical or mental harm or to maintain or improve health. This may pose some definitional problems for those seeking a unifying vision of public health. But, the fact that different groups working within public health define their own territory more narrowly should not deter lawyers from recognizing the broad scope of issues relevant to health.

Excerpt from Wendy K. Mariner, Public Health & Law: Past and Future Vissions, 28 J. HEALTH POL., POL’Y & L. 525 (2003).