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Introduction to Public Health

Birds eye image of busy crosswalk during peak hour with a crowd of people crossing, fast action shotWestern Australians enjoy a standard of living and a standard of health amongst the highest in the world.

In a 2010 report (The Western Australian Chief Health Officer’s Report 2010), we documented the dramatic improvements in life expectancy and health outcomes in WA over the last century, and some of the causes. Public health and advances in health care have both contributed significantly.

The main focus of public health is on prevention and early detection, rather than on clinical care. It looks at the whole population, rather than the individual. In this way, public health complements and works with clinical care.

Public health is concerned with the big picture of how society is organised to maximise health and well being, about what people can do for themselves and the role of institutions and government.

Public health practice needs both good science and good judgement. Public health professionals come from a wide range of disciplines and often use approaches targeted to changing attitudes in the broader community or the environment in which people make choices (e.g. schools or workplaces), as well as promoting behaviour change in individuals and families.

A central concern is good intelligence or data – on the population and its health status, and on the evidence about how health improves and which groups miss out. That intelligence is then turned into action or advocacy to further drive health improvement.

Many of the most successful public health interventions are now relatively ‘invisible’, supported by public health practitioners working behind the scenes, and/or with sectors other than health. Examples that are now part of our everyday experience include:

  • immunisation
  • safe food
  • safer workplaces
  • seatbelts and other road safety measures
  • water fluoridation
  • organised cancer screening
  • sun safety campaigns
  • control of tobacco

Many other people work together for the public health effort in WA, including:

  • citizens
  • community groups
  • non-government organisations (NGOs)
  • the media
  • government employees at local, state and federal levels
  • professional groups
  • clinicians
  • researchers and others
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