What is public health?

In dental hygiene we often assume that endeavors in public health encompass speaking to a third grade class about healthy dental behaviors or sponsoring a volunteer dental clinic for children who are without dental insurance or access to care.

In dental hygiene we often assume that endeavors in public health encompass speaking to a third grade class about healthy dental behaviors or sponsoring a volunteer dental clinic for children who are without dental insurance or access to care. Although this does fit into the broad spectrum of the public’s health, these are just a small portion of “public health.”

In fact, when working in a volunteer clinic, we may get frustrated by the rampant dental decay experienced by too many of the patients, the difficulty in finding a dental home for too many patients, or the inadequate nutritional status of too many children. It is then that we truly realize that public health is more than just providing a prophy to a few patients in need. These patients seem to need much more. We need to really understand that public health encompasses much more. We need to prevent rampant dental decay, we need to make changes to a system that leaves so many without adequate dental care, and we need to collaborate with others to find solutions to these issues.

So, let’s look closely. What is at the core of public health? How can we more effectively provide comprehensive health care to the public?

The World Health Organization defines health as the promotion of physical and mental health and the prevention of disease, injury, and disability. I think dental hygiene fits nicely into this definition. Furthermore, public health functions have been defined by our government. Public health endeavors should:

  • Prevent epidemics and the spread of disease
  • Protect against environmental hazards
  • Prevent injuries
  • Promote and encourage healthy behaviors
  • Respond to disasters and assist communities in recovery
  • Assure the quality and accessibility of health services1

Of course, dental hygienists may not deal directly with all of these endeavors on a daily basis, but I do feel that we still have a definite niche in these areas.

Additionally, the following are suggested essential public health services:

  • Monitor health status to identify community health problems
  • Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community
  • Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues
  • Mobilize community partnerships to identify and solve health problems
  • Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts
  • Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety
  • Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable
  • Assure a competent public health and personal health-care workforce
  • Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services
  • Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems1

These suggested essential public health services encompass everything we should be doing in dental hygiene to ensure optimal dental hygiene for all. Again, as dental hygienists we may not deal with each of these services on a daily basis; however, as a profession, we should be striving to achieve each of these functions in collaboration with others.

For more information on public health, please see http://www.health.gov/phfunctions/public.htm. As a profession we need to reach higher to really help provide comprehensive health care to our public!

1http://www.health.gov/phfunctions/public.htm

Christine Nathe, RDH, MS, is an associate professor and graduate program director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of “Dental Public Health,” (www.prenhall.com/nathe), which is in its second edition with Prentice Hall. She can be reached at cnathe@salud.unm.edu or (505) 272-8147.

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