March 30, 2000 (Atlanta) -- A new survey finds that while most Americans might not be able to define the term "public health," they are very concerned about issues related to it.
A study commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and released by the CDC asked more than 1,200 registered voters a list of questions last year about public health, the public health system, and the environment's relationship to that system. The study's goal was to help characterize attitudes about public health.
The public health system essentially strives to assure conditions in which people can be healthy. Public health differs from health care in that it focuses on entire populations rather than individuals.
Respondents to the survey were given four descriptions of public health, then asked what they thought of when they heard the term. Just over half could not define public health either as protecting the population from disease or as policies and programs that promote healthy living conditions for everyone, the researchers say.
"It's not a surprise; people don't have a clue what public health means," study author Shelley Hearne, DrPH, tells WebMD. But when they understand that public health is about large-scale ways to prevent disease and how much the environment affects that, "the support for public health is extraordinary."
When the survey participants were given accurate descriptions of public health, a little more than half weighed in with negative evaluations of the existing public health system. Almost two-thirds said they thought government needed to do more to protect the public from health crises.
Only education beat out public health as a greater priority for additional government resources. About three-quarters of the group thought that public health deserved more economic support than that given to build roads or maintain missile defense. Nearly two-thirds said even tax cuts were a lower priority.
"It's the actual numbers that are the most telling part, because when you asked voters how they want their tax dollars [allotted], how they want the government to spend the money, ? public health came out significantly stronger in every instance," says Hearne, who is with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
When asked whether such environmental factors as pollution can lead to disease and health problems, the answer was a resounding yes, with 85% of the respondents voicing concerns. More than a third considered the environment very important in health concerns.
A little more than half felt that sinus problems, allergies, and childhood asthma were influenced by the environment. About a third thought the environment played a "very important" role in colds and influenza and in birth defects. Thirty-nine percent felt the same about childhood cancer. Interestingly, the numbers dropped considerably for breast cancer, to 28%, and for prostate cancer and infertility, to 20%. "I was surprised by that, too," Hearne says.