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What is Public Health?

Updated July 14, 2016

From sending updates on mercury levels in seafood to controlling disease outbreaks, Oregon’s public health system plays a critical, yet often times little-known, role in the overall health of our patients. As more and more Oregonians have health insurance, public health’s role is also shifting to provide more proactive services to Oregonians to help lay the foundation for overall better health outcomes.

Here we take a closer look at the emerging role public health will have in our lives and in the lives of our patients.

Modernizing Oregon’s Public Health System

Over the last five weeks, we’ve profiled public health’s current and emerging role in the overall health of Oregonians. From preparing for natural disasters to administering immunizations and keeping our air and water clean and safe, public health continues to play an important role in the overall health of our patients.

And now that 95 percent of Oregonians have health insurance, our next step in health system transformation is to ensure that all Oregon communities have access to these basic public health protections. Legislators and stakeholders have come together over the last two years to create a new model, Public Health Modernization, that creates a baseline of public health programs across the state and allows public health to be both proactive and reactive - working with communities to address the underlying issues of chronic health problems, while also responding to emerging threats and outbreaks.

However, to fully implement this, Oregon will need to make an investment in public health.

 A recent assessment found that in over a third of Oregon’s communities, public health programs are coming up short from where we want them to be. Yet, the work that public health does saves money: every $1 spent on prevention saves $5.60 in health care spending.

During the upcoming legislative session, we’ll work to make sure that legislators understand the importance of public health and why modernizing this system is vital to the health of our patients. As nurses, we understand that a robust public health system is the foundation for healthier communities, so it’s imperative that we are at the table in these conversations.

To learn more and get more involved in this process in the upcoming months, please contact Catie at

Health Equity and Cultural Responsiveness

From providing preventative care to controlling disease outbreaks, Oregon’s public health system plays a critical role in the comprehensive health of our patients. As Oregon continues to attract a variety of culturally diverse populations and increasingly nuanced and complex services are offered, it’s important that public health emphasize health equity to best serve all Oregonians.

Ultimately, health starts where we live, learn, work and play. Without proactively identifying and addressing the inherent connections between health and class, race, culture and environment, many Oregonians will still not have full access to our public health system.

Whether it is in testing for a chronic disease, spreading information on an outbreak, or coaching a new mother on caring for her baby, there are key culturally responsive approaches that will be key in positively impacting overall population health.

Some culturally responsive tactics include:

  • providing information in different languages
  • taking into consideration cultural factors
  • building a robust and diverse public health workforce

In modernizing our public health infrastructure, these culturally responsive tactics will be at the forefront in effectively serving Oregon’s communities.

Controlling Communicable Diseases

From tracking Oregon’s first case of Zika Virus, to a recent Meningococcal disease outbreak at the University of Oregon, and even an instance of the bubonic plague in Crook County, our public health system collects data, monitors, and works to contain the spread of hazardous diseases throughout the state. Effectively educating providers and the general public on diseases, communicating about potential and developing outbreaks, and following up with those who have been diagnosed are all imperative to both monitor and prevent the proliferation of harmful diseases going forward.

As potential outbreaks are identified and outbreaks develop, communicable disease control will continue to be one of the cornerstones of a modern public health system that will expand and evolve to meet the changing needs of Oregonians.

Prevention and Health Promotion

Local and state public health departments provide a variety of critical health care services like immunizations, contraceptive care, and health screenings that offer important resources to individuals who may not otherwise have access to preventative care. However, as more Oregonians have health insurance coverage, public health increasingly incorporates a number of innovative preventative care programs that help lay the foundation for better health outcomes in our communities.

Increasingly, public health’s role includes programs such as: tobacco prevention campaigns to deter young people from smoking; school-based health centers, which can help underserved communities gain access to primary care at a centralized community location; and healthy babies initiatives that teach low-income parents best practices for pre and post-natal care. In addition to providing health screenings, teaching prevention classes and connecting Oregonians to programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), these supplemental and educational health care programs plays a key role in the overall health and success of many Oregonians across the state.

Promoting Healthy Environments

The last several weeks have been ripe with high-profile environmental outbreaks that can have profound impacts on health outcomes. From toxins in the air to lead in the water, public health increasingly plays a key role in promoting and regulating environmental health. In the wake of the recent findings in the Portland area, the Oregon Health Authority has partnered with the Department of Environmental Quality to ensure better testing and regulations moving forward on air quality and is working with the Oregon Department of Education to implement a plan around safe drinking water in schools. These events will continue to inform what can and should be done by public health departments to make sure that we all have access to clean air and water.

As we continue to modernize our public health systems at both a state and local level, public health will also continue to study the health impacts associated with climate change, prepare us for natural disasters, promote healthy homes and neighborhoods and help keep our parks and workplaces safe. To learn more about the emerging role of public health and to get more involved in Public Health Modernization, contact Catie at

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