Public Health vs. Population Health vs. Healthcare

public health vs. population health

Whether you’re new to the field of public health or have been working in the field for a lifetime, chances are, you’ve come across your colleagues using the terms population health and public health interchangeably. You may also have heard people outside of the field use public health and healthcare interchangeably. We’re digging into three common questions about public health vs. population health, and healthcare that will help clarify their similarities and differences. 

1. Is there a difference between public health and population health?

Not really. While there is some debate about exact definitions, the difference between population health and public health primarily comes down to semantics. 

The definition of population health is “the health outcomes of a group of individuals, including the distribution of such outcomes within the group,” according to What is Population Health. Oxford Dictionary defines public health as “the health of the population as a whole, especially as the subject of government regulation and support.” For some, the focus on government in the definition of public health is what sets it apart from population health. But the government is not included in every meaning of public health. For instance, the CDC uses C-E.A. Winslow’s definition of public health: “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals.” 

If these definitions are causing more confusion than clarity, take a step back and consider that “public” and “population” are synonyms and in most cases, so too are “public health” and “population health.” As stated in Dr. Ana V. Diez Roux’s On the Distinction—or Lack of Distinction—Between Population Health and Public Health, “What really matters are the questions we pose regarding the health of the public, the answers we obtain, and the actions we take in response. Whether we call this approach public health or population health is, in all honesty, irrelevant.”

2. What is the difference between public health services and healthcare services?

Public health services focus on protecting and promoting the health of entire populations, while healthcare services focus on diagnosing and treating individual patients.

The CDC lists ten essential public health services designed to nurture the health of “all people in all communities”:

  1. Assess and monitor population health status, factors that influence health, and community needs and assets
  2. Investigate, diagnose, and address health problems and hazards affecting the population
  3. Communicate effectively to inform and educate people about health, factors that influence it, and how to improve it
  4. Strengthen, support, and mobilize communities and partnerships to improve health
  5. Create, champion, and implement policies, plans, and laws that impact health
  6. Utilize legal and regulatory actions designed to improve and protect the public’s health
  7. Assure an effective system that enables equitable access to the individual services and care needed to be healthy
  8. Build and support a diverse and skilled public health workforce
  9. Improve and innovate public health functions through ongoing evaluation, research, and continuous quality improvement
  10. Build and maintain a strong organizational infrastructure for public health

There are areas where both public health and healthcare services work together. For example, public health agencies establish guidelines for vaccinations and monitor population-wide safety and efficacy, while healthcare providers administer vaccines and make recommendations for their individual patient’s conditions. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists can work in both the public health and healthcare sectors.

3. Is the government responsible for public health?

In large part, yes. Federal, state, and local governments all play distinct and critical roles in protecting public health. However, private entities also play important public health roles.

There are several federal government agencies responsible for different aspects of public health. The primary federal agencies responsible are those within the US Public Health Service, including well-known organizations like the CDC, the NIH, and the FDA. While the federal government provides funding and guidelines to ensure that funding is applied appropriately and consistently across the country, states have the primary authority over protecting public health, including developing regulations/policies and enforcing them. Many local county or city health departments also have public health authorities. They are often the first contact points for providing public health services to communities, with about 3,000 local health departments across the US. Apart from the government, the public health system in the US also consists of private sector organizations dedicated to public health work (i.e., foundations and nonprofit organizations) and government agencies and for-profit entities with programs closely aligned to public health (i.e., mental health agencies).

In the US, each level of government and private entities collectively support public health. Heluna Health supports and delivers public health programs across federal, state, local, and private nonprofit sectors, exemplifying the broad nature of collaboration needed to address public health. 

As a population health organization, Heluna Health brings researchers, institutions, community partners, and individuals together to improve the health and well-being of our communities. In fact, our name references the Hawaiian word “Heluna,” signifying ‘population’ or ‘total count,’ embodying our vision of healthy, strong communities for all.

Whether you’re a public health veteran, student, or novice, understanding the relationships and differences between public health, population health, and healthcare will help you navigate this field with greater clarity.