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Public health hero

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.

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).

The role of nursing staff

The RCN believes that nursing should be at the heart of minimising the impact of illness, promoting health and helping people to function at home, work, and leisure. Improving public health should be seen as part of all nursing and midwifery roles. The RCN report: Nurses 4 public health. The value and contribution of nursing to public health in the UK: Final report (2016) looks at the value and contribution of nurses to public health in the UK.

  • Public health is everyone’s responsibility and should be a fundamental part of all nursing roles.
  • Nursing skills are rightly valued as being able to provide meaningful public health interventions across all health and social care settings as part of holistic patient centred care.  

The RCN has been working with the members on a series of case studies which help showcase the variety of ways nurses are currently working to improve public health. See: Nurses for 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. PHE have developed ‘All our Health Framework’ which is a call to action to 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. The framework includes resources to help professionals promote health and wellbeing as well as support them to understand their responsibilities and pint out opportunities that make a difference to population health. The Framework has been developed with colleagues across the UK.

The revised Public Health Skills and Knowledge Framework has now been published. The Framework sets out the core skills and knowledge for all those working in public health. Its accompanied by a helpful guide, setting out how it can be used by individuals, employers and educational providers working in public health.

RCN members can now join the Faculty of Public Health as Practitioner members at a reduced rate. See: FPH practitioner membership for more information on what membership to the faculty will offer.

Making Every Contact Count (MECC) is a concept aimed to support public health. The approach behind MECC is to use behavior change techniques with individuals and organisations using the many day to day interactions we all have, to support people making positive changes to their lifestyle. The MECC website developed by Health Education England includes lots of resources and examples of where individual teams and organisations have used the MECC approach successfully. There are further resources and information from the PHE under MECC practical resources. The Royal College of Midwives report ‘Stepping up to public health’ includes information for midwives and women on the important public health contribution during pregnancy and the first weeks of life.

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.