Sitting in my introductory environmental health class recently, I had a flash of complete understanding about how all the varied fields of public health work together. U-M School of Public Health divides the fields five ways: Environmental Health Sciences, Health Behavior and Health Education, Health Management and Policy, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics. I’m going to stick to these divisions to explain my understanding.
Professor Hu was discussing how the environmental health scientists would collect information about the exposures people have to something in their environment, and how the epidemiologists would design studies to compare various populations’ health outcomes based on that exposure. Biostatisticians would evaluate the data and create reports in conjunction with the epidemiologists. Health behaviorists and educators would interpret these studies and figure out ways to help people change their behaviors to avoid exposure to things that negatively impact health. People who write health policies would also interpret the epidemiological studies to make policies that can make structural changes to help people be able to change their behaviors to improve their health.
A great example that illustrates all this is smoking. Recently, in Michigan, public places went smoke-free. This was a health policy change, and many of the people working for that law change are actually staff and alumni of U-M SPH! Prior to that, lots of other parts of public health had been trying to reduce people’s exposure to smoke – either first-hand or second-hand. Epidemiologists and biostatisticians had been collecting data for years about the detrimental effects of second-hand smoke on people who work in smoky environments. Health behavior change specialists were working with individuals to quit smoking, or to learn to avoid second-hand smoke if they were non-smokers. In the end, all the fields of public health worked together to bring about individual, community, and state-wide changes that will improve the public’s health.