Public Health vs. Medicine: Differences & Similarities

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  • 0:03 Public Health
  • 0:47 Population vs Individual
  • 1:48 Prevention vs Treatment & Care
  • 2:55 Determinants of Health
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Murdock

Daniel has taught Public Health at the graduate level and has a Ph.D. in Behavioral Sciences & Health Education.

In this lesson, we'll examine three key dimensions that distinguish public health from individual medicine. We'll also explore how these two fields sometimes overlap.

Public Health

Most of us are pretty familiar with the role of medical care in our health system. Doctors and other medical professionals help us with our personal healthcare issues by diagnosing and treating our individual health problems. For example, if you have the flu, the doctor will assess your symptoms, make a diagnosis, and prescribe medications to help you feel better.

Public health deals with preventing disease and promoting health at the community or population level. While doctors treat us when we're sick, public health professionals try to prevent us from getting sick in the first place. For example, public health professionals try to prevent influenza infections by promoting hand washing and flu vaccines.

Population vs Individual

The biggest difference between public health and medicine is that public health deals with health from the perspective of populations, while medicine deals with health from the perspective of individuals. In medicine, the patient is the individual person. In public health, the patient is the entire community.

Medical professionals diagnose our individual health problems by listening to us describe our symptoms and performing necessary medical tests. Public health professionals diagnose community health problems using scientific research and disease surveillance systems. Public health professionals use two important indicators to measure population health: disease prevalence and disease incidence.

Disease prevalence is the number of individuals within a population who have a particular disease at a given time. Disease incidence is the number of new cases of a particular disease within a population in a given time period. Prevalence tells us how widespread the disease is, while incidence tells us about the risk of contracting a particular disease.

Prevention vs Treatment & Care

Another key difference between public health and medicine is that medicine emphasizes disease treatment and care, while public health emphasizes disease prevention and health promotion. This is not to say that medical professionals don't employ disease prevention strategies. In fact, this is a very important part of their work. For example, doctors often help their patients quit smoking to help prevent them from getting lung cancer. However, the primary goal of medicine is to provide treatment and medical care for individuals who have already developed a disease.

The primary goal of public health is to prevent disease and promote health at the population level. Public health professionals employ many different disease prevention strategies, such as health education, community vaccination, sanitation initiatives, and health policy.

Health policy is a particularly important tool for achieving public health goals because policies can reach a wide range of people. For example, many U.S. states have adopted policies that ban smoking in restaurants. These policies can help prevent lung cancer by reducing exposure to second-hand smoke.

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