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A soldier in uniform lies on a table. A dentist sits beside them, wearing a face mask and glasses with magnifying lenses and a light. In the background, an assistant holds papers and works on a computer.
Figure 2.1 Increasing access to dental care is essential to maintaining good oral health, which is a crucial aspect of overall health and well-being. Support for mobile health units aligns with population health goals to achieve health equity and address social determinants of health. Follow this link to read about the Manchester, New Hampshire, mobile dental program for schoolchildren. (credit: modification of work by Navy Medicine/Flickr, Public Domain)

Whether or not a public health department formally employs them, all nurses support public health in some capacity. Nurses working in specific public health roles may lead disease surveillance and investigations, promote health, and provide community education or perhaps develop health policy. Nurses working in schools, clinics, hospitals, colleges, private industry, or any other role impact public health by fulfilling their duty to promote and protect the population’s health and well-being.

Public health is a distinct discipline that operates alongside and in support of nursing. Nursing and public health have overlapping areas of focus and collaboration. Similarly, public health and community health are two fields that operate in concert to improve population health. This chapter and the next will use the term “public/community health” because these closely related disciplines and concepts are interconnected in their goals and functions. In fact, in nursing, community health has long been viewed as indistinguishable from public health (American Nurses Association [ANA], 2022, p.3). However, it is important to acknowledge some of the differences between public and community health that members of health care disciplines may recognize:

  • Public health: Health care professionals use research involving many people and large data sets to create policies and interventions meant to improve health. Public health efforts may target large populations or global concerns and can have far-reaching, long-term impacts on health. Generally, public health efforts prevent disease, promote and disseminate health interventions, and protect people from timely health threats such as pandemics, violence, climate change and environmental hazards, and substance misuse, to name a few.
  • Community health: Health care professionals use research and data to inform their work, but they also work closely with community partners and local clients/families to understand health priorities and contextual factors specific to the community. Community health efforts focus on the health and risks of a specific locality or group of people and therefore usually have a more immediate impact on the community. In community health, the health status, health needs, resources, circumstances, and other factors specific to communities of people guide work aimed at supporting the health of individuals, families, groups, and organizations.

This chapter explores the goals and functions of public health, while Public/Community Health in Practice discusses the roles and responsibilities of public health nurses. As you read this chapter, think about Alexandra Lee, a daycare teacher expecting a baby, and her family, who were introduced in What Is Population Health?. The Lee family also includes Alexandra’s husband, Christopher, who is currently unemployed and has hypertension; Sunshine, a kindergarten student with life-threatening allergies; and Woody, a generally healthy toddler. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 will follow the Lee family to explore how population, public, and community health impact their well-being.


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