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What is public health?

asbestos public health warningNot all health care takes place in hospitals. Read on to find out more about public health, and the many careers within it.

Public health means protecting the health of whole communities, rather than individuals. Public health also tends to be about preventing diseases and injury, rather than treating them after they have happened. This covers a lot of different things, so AIDS prevention programmes in Africa are an example of public health, and so are health and safety inspections to make sure people won’t have accidents in buildings or on the roads. Although public health is a wide-ranging area, it is normally broken down into four separate parts:


Epidemiology is the study of how diseases affect the population and how they can be prevented. For example, during an outbreak of ‘flu, epidemiologists would look at where the outbreak started, predict how far it might spread and offer advice on how best to contain the outbreak – from shutting down schools to making sure vaccines are distributed to the most vulnerable people.

Environmental health

Environmental health examines how the surroundings in which people live affects their health, and to make sure they are as safe as possible. This involves everything from checking levels of pollution in the air and water supply and looking for dangerous substances like asbestos in people’s houses to investigating noisy pubs that are keeping their neighbours up all night!

Health education

Health education involves teaching people how to lead healthier lifestyles, hopefully to stop them ending up in hospital at all! This might be a nationwide campaign of adverts and leaflets to encourage people to stop smoking or not drink and drive, or it could be nurses and health education officers visiting schools to talk about healthy eating, or distributing free condoms at universities.

Health policy

health education lectureHealth policy is all about providing advice to health organisations and lobbying the government and local councils so they make the right decisions about health care. People working in health policy might analyse data and statistics on health from hospitals and other sources, prepare reports for politicians and health management teams, and work with them to put the ideas into practice.

How do I get in to public health?

You can study public health degrees and diplomas at many universities and colleges, and the NHS has loads of different careers in public health, like public health visitor, occupational therapist and health psychologist to name just a few. But plenty of other organisations – such as local councils, charities and private businesses – are involved in public health as well. These often require different skills from just medical knowledge and training – so an engineer could work for a local council checking that sewerage systems are safe, or someone who has studied law might help to draft public health legislation.

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