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Public health

Improving the public’s health is at the heart of health and social care across the UK

There has been a marked improvement in life expectancy over the last 100 years. However, there are huge inequalities across the population, with a 20 year difference noted in some areas. Living longer doesn't necessarily equate to living better or healthier.

Better housing and living conditions, alongside improved access to health care and vaccination during the 20th century has led to a significant reduction in infectious diseases.

Today it is non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and respiratory conditions that are of increasing concern. The underlying causes of ill health are often attributable to unhealthy lifestyles, namely smoking, obesity and alcohol consumption. These are also associated with social inequalities. This is primarily deprivation but other factors play a part such as education or social habits.

This resource, including the specific public health topic resources on areas of practice have been developed with the RCN Professional Lead for Public Health and the RCN Public Health forum alongside expert members and forum link nurses: see RCN Public Health forum for details.

This resource has been endorsed by:

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What is public health?

Public health refers to all organised measures (whether public or private) to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole.’ (WHO).

Public health supports individuals, organisations, and society to tackle preventable disease, mortality and disability using:

  • Prevention: reducing the incidence of ill health supporting healthier lifestyle
  • Protection: surveillance and monitoring of infectious disease, emergency response and immunisation
  • Promotion: health education and commissioning services to meet specific health needs.

Listen to this Past Caring podcast on public health nursing.

See also the RCN public health nursing exhibition available online: A healthful form of work: The history of public health nursing

The role of nursing staff in public health

Nursing staff work in almost every stage and setting of care, and as such they have an important role across a wide range of public health interventions. Find out more about the role of nursing staff in public health.

Speciality areas in public health: Prevent, Protect and Promote

Public health broadly consists of three different strands the ‘3Ps’: health promotion, prevention of ill health and health protection.

Speciality areas of public health have lots of overlap and cross over within these strands. Across all areas there is a need to understand the causes of ill health but also what makes people well and healthy and how to maintain and support this.

Everyone is a public health practitioner and can impact on the public’s health

  • Embedding Public Health into Clinical Services programme: e-learning for health resource.
  • The Public Health England (PHE) ‘All our Health Framework’ encourages all health care professionals to use their knowledge, skills and relationships, working with patients and the population to prevent illness, protect health and promote wellbeing.
  • Also see NHS England's Population Wellbeing Portal. A central location for e-learning to deliver improvements in public health, prevention and wellbeing.
  • The RSPH tool kit ‘Everyday Interactions’ supports health care professional measure the impact of the work they do and how this impacts on the public’s health.

Related news

  • Salt Awareness Week - 9th to 15th March 2020. The campaign this year is called Hide and seek’ it is specifically aimed at shining a light on the hidden salt in the food we buy and to raise awareness on this for the public but also to lobby for food manufacturers to cut the salt content in food. The campaign is useful for health care professionals as part of their conversations with people on eating healthily.