“The subject of public health is greatly important – without it, our communities and wider societies would not be able to function effectively or safely. We’re not always aware of the steps being taken to protect us, but we’d certainly know about it if they ceased to exist. I am writing this to show how imperative it is we know what is being done to protect us.”

Why Strong Public Health Plans Matter

Public health is a concept that many people would find it difficult to define, but it can be one of the most important issues for city planners and health officials to consider. Having a strong public health program can be just as important for a city, and the people in it, as having a strong economy and the right person in charge.

What Is Public Health?

Public health is a field focused on preventing illness and promoting better health at a community level. It identifies the health risks that threaten a population’s wellbeing and finds ways of reducing them. Although this is vital work, public health still remains a mystery to many people. Changing perceptions of public health so that more people understand its importance is one of the goals of National Public Health Week, which runs during the first week in April. Students of public health at the University of Memphis were among those involved in the event this year. They focused on activities designed to help people quit smoking, because this is the type of public health work with which people are most familiar, but they also wanted to use it as an opportunity to get people to think about what public health is and why it matters.

For many people, health is an individual concern that only matters when they fall sick and have to visit their doctor. The idea that health can be something we should consider at the community level can be surprising, but it is one that we can all understand when we see how public health programs can affect individual lives. Community level interventions to encourage people to give up smoking, along with programs designed to make quitting aids available, show how the proactive, preventative approaches of public health at a population level can improve the health of individuals. Tackling a problem in the community by changing attitudes to smoking can have a significant impact on the long-term health of each person who is convinced to change their lifestyle. However, the results will also benefit the population as a whole, by reducing the demand on health services and helping to keep more people fit enough to play an active part in their community.

The History of Public Health

Public health has long been closely tied to urban planning and city management. Its history demonstrates the importance to cities and other populations of having strong public health programs in place to create healthier environments for people to inhabit and to tackle immediate threats such as disease outbreaks. The origins of public health lie in the efforts that were taken in the mid 19th century to understand how disease was spread and to improve the lives of people who were living in poorly built, overcrowded cities. The germ theory of disease was beginning to gain ground, and the idea that people needed access to clean water and safe waste management to stay healthy was beginning to influence the way cities were built. Approaches like those used by John Snow to trace a cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated water pump were helping to establish some of the basic ideas of what would become public health. The ideas weren’t always right. Many people held on to the belief that it was miasma, a bad smelling air, that made people ill, rather than germs, but the intention to improve public health was what drove the construction of sewers, efforts to improve hospital hygiene, and the removal of toxic substances such as arsenic-containing wallpaper dyes from homes.

What Public Health Measures Have Achieved

These early attempts at improving public health by building better homes and cities led on to programs that have managed to achieve significant changes in the way we live. Among the most impressive achievements of public health are the immunization programs that have helped to keep people free from many dangerous infectious diseases, and which even managed to eradicate smallpox worldwide. Public health practitioners were responsible for organizing the immunization efforts that managed to reach every part of the world. Other achievements have focused more on changing people’s attitudes and behaviors than on delivering healthcare interventions. Public health campaigns have helped to halt the spread of diseases by educating people about the importance of hand washing, and they have tried to steer people away from harmful lifestyle choices such as smoking.

One major issue that is facing public health departments today is how to tackle increasing obesity levels. Lifestyles have changed significantly over the last few centuries, with the average amount of sugar we each consume per year rising from about four pounds in 1700 to 165 pounds today, according to estimates reported by KwikMed. Public health efforts need to tackle the problems that these sorts of changes can produce, and although there is still a long way to go, they have been able to increase awareness of the problem and change some attitudes. Encouraging people to eat well and take exercise has helped, and the kinds of pressure to act more responsibly inflicted on manufacturers and governments by organizations like Harvard’s school of Public Health have even convinced companies like Coca Cola to offer nutrition advice.

Why Public Health Plans Matter

Public health has saved lives, improved health and shaped the way we live now. According to the National League of Cities, it has helped to increase life expectancy by 30 years over the last century. Public health efforts are now looking forward into the future, and striving to find ways to improve the lives of the coming generations. Public health programs designed to engage young people could help to ensure that young people not only live healthier lifestyles, but also that they are able to fulfill their potential in all areas of their lives.


1. “Why Strong City Mayors Matter,” Smart City Memphis, accessed April 2, 2014.

2. “Join the Movement,” National Public Health Week, accessed April 2, 2014.

3. Patrick Lantrip, “National Public Health Week kicks off,” March 31, 2014, The Daily Helmsman.

4. “Public Health Timeline,” The North Carolina Institute for Public Health, accessed April 2, 2014.

5. Beth Skwarecki, “Good and bad ideas from 1875’s “City of Health”,” March 22, 2014, PLOS Blogs Public Health Perspectives.

6. “Sugar: the Sweetest Poison,” KwikMed, accessed April 2, 2014.

7. “Our Commitment to Fight Obesity, Coming Together,” Coca Cola, accessed April 2, 2014.

8. “Public Health Takes Aim At Sugar and Salt,” Harvard School of Public Health, accessed April 2, 2014.

9. “Promoting and Protecting Healthy Communities: A City Officials Guide to Public Health,” The National League of Cities, National Association of County and City Health Officials, accessed April 2, 2014.

10. “Improving adolescent health: what are the priorities?” Young Health Program, accessed April 2, 2014.