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Introduction

This page provides a very brief introduction to public health. Many people in New Zealand aren’t sure exactly what public health is or why it is important to them. Public health affects us all.

What is public health

Primary health care is where doctors and nurses treat individuals who are sick or hurt, but public health is concerned about the health of the population as a whole. That’s why it is sometimes known as ‘population health’.

Public health focuses on finding evidence-based ways to improve health and wellbeing through preventing disease and other physical and mental health conditions. Public health is mainly concerned about having a society where everyone has the same access to what they need to be healthy, such as: food; shelter; medicine; and health care services.

Public health has three broad areas of concern.

1. Preventing ill health

Public health is about preventing people from becoming unwell in the first place. Preventing ill-health is much better and much cheaper for society than spending resources helping people who have become sick.

Examples of public health prevention include: promoting immunisation against diseases; ensuring homes are healthy so children don’t get diseases like rheumatic fever or asthma; making sure nutritious food is affordable; and promoting exercise and other healthy behaviours like hand-washing.

2. Stopping health problems becoming worse

Public health is about making sure people who have become unwell have access to what they need to get better.

Examples include: making sure there are good services in place to help people stop smoking or deal with an alcohol or drug problem; keeping medicines affordable for everyone; and encouraging programmes or processes that improve health situations such as minimum standards for rental housing.

3. Containing health problems

Public health is also concerned about things like how well prepared we are to deal with a disease epidemic or natural disaster. If there is an outbreak of disease or a major earthquake or flood, we need to be ready so all those affected continue to have access to the food, shelter and medicine they need.

Why does public health matter?

Public health matters for two main reasons.

Firstly, poor public health results in suffering, and this can be especially so for children. When people live in cold damp houses, can’t afford healthy food or have not been given enough information to make healthier choices, they get sick and may not be able to work or provide sufficiently for their children. Children who are frequently sick or hungry do not get a good start in life and often miss out on social, educational and employment opportunities later on.

The second reason public health is important is economical. People who cannot work or need to be in hospital have to be supported by everyone else in society through their taxes. That costs us all. The public health philosophy is that it is far better to spend some money and resources now to promote everyone’s good health than to spend a lot more later treating and supporting them when they are sick.

A big part of this is ensuring all people in New Zealand always have equal access to the health care and resources they need regardless of where they live, what they earn or what country they’re from. This is known as health equity.

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