What Are the Top Public Health Concerns Today and How Are They Determined?

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Public health professionals meet to discuss public health concerns

The field of public health is constantly evolving to keep pace with new health risks, infectious diseases and environmental conditions that negatively impact communities around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with other government and nonprofit entities, are always on the lookout for emergent public health concerns that pose a threat to the well-being of individuals and entire populations — from alcoholism and drug abuse to obesity and heart disease. Once pressing health problems are identified, public health experts conduct detailed studies, advocate for appropriate social programs and develop educational resources to keep the general public informed. But how exactly do public health professionals determine what is (and is not) a public health concern?

How Experts Determine Public Health Concerns

Public health is a diverse field of study, bringing together professionals with a variety of specializations and experiences to work toward a shared goal: Protecting the health and well-being of people from all walks of life. This close collaboration enables healthcare and public health professionals, legal experts and policy makers, business leaders, community stakeholders, and others to share ideas and build response plans that are comprehensive and backed by scientific research.

As noted by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), public health agencies also collect, store and analyze a wealth of information about community needs and resources to help identify widespread health problems. Paired with advanced surveillance and reporting systems, experts can detect disease outbreaks, monitor mental health trends and identify other public health concerns that may be isolated to specific regions. For example, public health professionals and residents living near the coast may have an interest in beach safety, an issue that experts living in landlocked states may not be familiar with. Through an interconnected network, officials are able to leverage their specialized interests and skill sets to address health problems with the most potential for personal and societal harm.

Top 3 Public Health Concerns

As part of its ongoing efforts to improve the health and well-being of the general public, the CDC releases Prevention Status Reports that highlight specific public health concerns. Generally, these reports address health problems that are already well understood and that impact a significant portion of the U.S. population, or the world. Alongside these long-running topics and campaigns, public health agencies also track new infectious diseases and help create safety guidelines to reduce the spread and severity of outbreaks. Below are just a few of the public health issues the CDC and others are currently tracking:

1. COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic is by far the most immediate public health concern of this century, having quickly spread from Wuhan, China, to every developed nation in the world. As of July 14, 2020, there have been a total of 3.3 million cases of COVID-19 and 135,235 deaths, according to data from the CDC. When the outbreak was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, public health professionals working with policy makers acted to limit the spread of the virus by developing social distancing guidelines, advising government officials on lockdown policies, and creating community resources to educate the general public.

In partnership with healthcare providers, public health agencies have been aggressively tracking new cases of COVID-19 to better understand how the disease is spread in different environments. They’ve also been studying the associated symptoms, morbidity and mortality, and patients’ underlying medical conditions to learn which individuals are most at-risk. When facing global emergencies, the work of public health professionals helps prepare communities, families and individuals to protect their health and well-being.

2. Heart Disease

Heart disease is currently the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. Around 647,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease each year, which is roughly 1 in every 4 deaths, according to research published in the medical journal, Circulation. To reduce the rate of heart diseases and strokes, public health professionals create educational resources about key risk factors, prevention methods and the importance of nutrition and exercise. They also partner with government officials and health experts to develop new policies and programs aimed at heart disease prevention.

In 2004, the CDC published the Public Health Action Plan to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke to set new goals for heart disease prevention and outline methods to achieve positive, lasting results. This action plan has been regularly updated in the years since, ensuring all guidance falls in line with the latest scientific evidence. The CDC’s recommendations include calls for more cardiovascular health interventions, an expansion of health data collection and monitoring systems, an increased focus on local and state health policies, and much more. In the years ahead, public health agencies will continue to advocate for new resources and treatment methods to reduce the impact of preventable diseases like heart disease.

3. Motor Vehicle Accidents

While many public health issues center on infectious diseases, chronic illnesses and severe medical conditions, the CDC and other agencies also track physical hazards like natural disasters and car accidents. In the United States alone, motor vehicle accidents send more than 2.3 million people to the emergency room and cause roughly 38,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC and the Association for Safe International Road Travel. Public health professionals work to reduce the rate of injuries and deaths by advocating for safe driving practices, warning of the dangers of distracted driving and partnering with the government to create new laws and regulations.

Public health agencies, for example, played a leading role in the development of state-level seatbelt laws, which have helped reduce the rate of motor vehicle deaths, per the CDC. According to some studies, more than half the people killed in vehicle collisions were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash. These solution-focused initiatives reveal how public health experts enact real change and have a direct impact on the health and safety of countless people around the world.

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Recommended Readings:

What can you learn from a public health internship?

Job Overview for a Career as a Public Health Analyst



Association for Safe International Road Travel, Annual Global Road Crash Statistics

Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Public Health Collection, Use, Sharing, and Protection of Information

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About the Prevention Status Reports

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Motor Vehicle Injuries

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Policy Impact: Seat Belts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Action Plan to Prevent Heart Disease and Stroke

Circulation, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics-2019 Update

World Health Organization, Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19)