April 5, 2012

Public Health Professionals Help Keep Our Communities Healthy and Safe

Op Ed
April 5, 2012


by Karen McKeown, RN, MSN
Administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health

During National Public Health Week we celebrate the achievements of public health. It's easy to overlook the work of public health, because it often takes place behind the scenes. Its victories are marked by the infectious or foodborne outbreak that does not occur, the disease or disability that does not develop, or the disaster or injury that does not happen. Tragedies averted may not make headlines, but in its quiet way, public health has added an estimated 25 years to Americans' life expectancy since 1900.

When you go to your health care provider, he or she will first complete an examination, or assessment. This involves asking you questions, checking your vital signs, and may include diagnostic tests such as labs or x-rays. Your provider then uses this information to diagnose any actual or potential problems, and to develop a plan to improve or maintain your health. At your next visit, your provider will check to see if the plan is working.

In much the same way as your health care provider cares for you as an individual, public health professionals care for the community as a whole. They have their fingers on the pulse of their communities, assessing them for conditions that threaten the health and well-being of the population. They develop plans and work with community partners to address these threats, often before problems arise. And they monitor the effects of their interventions, to ensure that they are effective.

As they carry out their essential work in an era of limited resources and competing priorities, public health agencies at the local and state levels face challenges. For example, a substantial portion of funding for the work of public health comes from federal grants. These grants are typically categorical, meaning that the use of the funds is restricted to particular programs and activities. This can create challenges when the federal priorities do not match those identified at the local or state level by public health professionals who have carefully assessed their communities' specific needs. Moreover, changes in federal priorities may leave local and state programs underfunded or even without funds.

Despite the many challenges, public health workers carry on in determined pursuit of their goal. In Wisconsin, the mission of public health is described in the state plan as "Everyone Living Better, Longer." Whether it means stepping forward to lead in a pandemic or disaster, or working behind the scenes to ensure healthy births or to reduce the impact of chronic disease, you can rest assured that public health is on the job.


Karen McKeown, RN, MSN
Administrator of the Division of Public Health
Wisconsin Department of Health Services