Public health is the science of ensuring safety and improving the health of populations through education, policies and research for disease and injury prevention.

What do public health professionals do?

The answer used to be: we are the ones who track epidemics; who make sure your restaurant food is cooked enough; who talk about the dangers of smoking; who make sure the safety equipment in your workplace is functional; and, who crunch numbers on who dies of what.

Yes, we are still those folks, but now we are also much more. More and more, public health is addressing big questions facing society:

  • How will climate change affect millions newly at risk for malaria, dengue fever, and cholera?
  • What is causing the epidemic of childhood obesity — and how will we reverse it?
  •  How should the architecture, information systems, and transportation of the new and renewed cities of tomorrow be redesigned to optimize health?
  • What does the globalization of the world’s industries, products, wastes, peoples, attitudes and cultural beliefs impact on the risk of the next SARS, the next food poisoning or the next toxic product?
  • What is the design of the truly sustainable health system of the future —and how will we get there?

Many take public health services that for granted, like the occupational and environmental health professionals who provide safe water, food, air and workplaces; and the epidemiology and biostatistics professionals who survey, monitor, and analyze the data that tell us how we are doing and what needs attention.

Some public health infrastructure is in plain view to consumers, like the health system, for which public health’s focus on management, health services, health systems and health policies provides the evidence, tools and professionals to optimize efficacy, efficiency and organization.  Some of it is a balance between society and individuals, like the role of policies that influence smoking, dietary, physical activity, sexual behaviours, income and poverty, and other factors that are the purview of social and behavioural health science professionals.

Read more on the history of public health at the University of Toronto.

– Howard Hu, Dalla Lana School of Public Health Dean