Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention, and detection and control of infectious diseases. Public health is concerned with protecting the health of the entire population, no matter what size that population may be. Public health is community health.

What important functions do public health and infection preventionists play in the health of my community?

Public health agencies, such as state and local health departments, provide a variety of healthcare services to the communities they serve. There are more than 2,500 local health departments in the United States.

The ten most frequent activities and services available through local health departments include:

  • Adult immunizations
  • Childhood immunizations
  • Communicable/infectious disease surveillance
  • Tuberculosis screening and treatment
  • Food service establishment inspection
  • Environmental health surveillance
  • Food safety education
  • Sexually transmitted disease treatment
  • School/daycare center inspection
  • Population-based nutrition service

State health departments can provide the following services:

  • Screening for diseases and conditions
  • Treatment for diseases
  • Technical assistance and training for local health departments and citizens
  • Laboratory services
  • Epidemiology and surveillance

Public health professionals and infection preventionists working in public health try to prevent problems from happening or recurring through implementing educational programs, recommending policies, administering services and conducting research – in contrast to clinical healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses, who focus primarily on treating individuals after they become sick or injured.

What are some examples of the roles of infection preventionists in public health settings?

  • Lead and participate in clinics (for example: childhood vaccinations, sexually transmitted diseases, influenza vaccination) that aim to prevent or decrease infectious disease transmission.
  • Assess health trends and risk factors of groups and determine priorities for targeted interventions.
  • Provide input to programs that monitor, anticipate, and respond to public health problems in population groups, regardless of which disease or public health threat is identified.
  • Work with communities or specific population groups within the community to develop public policy and targeted health promotion and disease prevention activities.
  • Participate in assessing and evaluating the healthcare needs of the public to ensure people are aware of programs and services and can access these services.
  • Provide health education, care management, and primary care to individuals and families who are at high risk for certain infections.

As a consumer can I use public health services?

  • Yes! Most local and state health departments offer services such as vaccinations at discounted cost.
  • Check their websites or visit your local health department to obtain a listing of all services offered.

What public health consumers can observe/ask:

  • If you are taking advantage of services offered through your local or state health department:
    • Make sure public healthcare providers are cleaning their hands before and after touching you, even if they will be wearing gloves. It’s okay to ask them to clean their hands if you have not seen them do so.
    • During visits where you or your loved one may get vaccinations remember to ask if the needle and syringe have been newly opened for you; syringes and needles should only be used one time and on one patient.
    • If you are having dental work done at the local health department, ask how the instruments are cleaned between uses.
    • Ask about other services the health department provides that may help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • If you are given an antibiotic by a public healthcare provider, be sure to ask the following questions:
    1. “Do I really need an antibiotic?”
    2. “Can I get better without this antibiotic?”
    3. “What side effects or drug interactions can I expect?”
    4. “What side effects should I report to you?”
    5. “How do you know what kind of infection I have? I understand that antibiotics won’t work for viral infections.”

What family members or other visitors can do in the public health setting:

  • Family members accompanying you and other visitors to the public health department should wear a mask to cover their nose and mouth if they have signs of a respiratory infection.
  • Practice good hand hygiene while in the public health department.
  • Make sure to cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing and promptly clean hands.

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