For the Public

Learn more about public health through the following frequently asked questions.

  1. What is Public Health?
  2. Why is Public Health Important?
  3. What do Public Health Professionals Do?
  4. How is the Public Health System Organized in BC?

1. What is Public Health?

The Role of Public Health

The role of public health is to protect and promote the health and well-being of British Columbians. 

The term “public health” is often confused with publicly funded and administered health care systems. Like many high-income countries, Canada has publicly-funded health care, which means that our overall health care system is funded by taxpayers’ dollars. Public health is one important part of this publicly-funded system.

Public health fulfils its role through a wide variety of activities, such as the following:

  • Ensuring people have access to safe drinking water and food.
  • Developing and delivering province-wide vaccination programs.
  • Reporting on the health of British Columbians.
  • Preventing and managing outbreaks of disease.
  • Providing at-home visits by public health nurses to young, vulnerable first-time mothers.
  • Encouraging people to use healthy behaviours and create supportive environments, in order to prevent chronic diseases and injuries.

Public health shares the same overall goals as the rest of the health system: reducing premature death and minimizing the effects of disease, disability, and injury. However, public health achieves these goals by focusing “upstream” through preventing illness, and protecting and promoting health and well-being.

The important values that guide public health include the following:

  1. Commitment to equity, social justice and sustainable development;
  2. Recognition of the importance of the health of the community as well as the individual; and
  3. Respect for diversity, self-determination, empowerment and community participation.

Population Health

Improving the health of any given population in British Columbia is referred to as population health. Population health helps to determine the many factors, such as chronic disease, that influence the health of a population, identify the various reasons why some populations are healthier than others, and use that information to develop and implement policies and actions aimed at improving the health and well-being of those populations experiencing health challenges.

The health of a population is influenced by key physical, social, economic and cultural factors, known as determinants of health. These determinants include the following:

  • Income and social status
  • Social support networks
  • Education and literacy
  • Employment and working conditions
  • Social environments
  • Physical environments
  • Personal health practices and coping skills
  • Healthy child development
  • Biology and genetic endowment
  • Health services
  • Gender
  • Culture

2. Why is Public Health Important?

The average lifespan of Canadians has increased by 30 years since the early 1900s, and 25 of those years can be attributed to advances in public health (National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health, 2003), including the following:

  • Prevention and control of infectious diseases.
  • Safe food and water.
  • Recognition of tobacco as a health hazard.
  • Improved maternal and infant health.

Research has shown that good health is fundamental to leading a healthy, productive life. The main intent of public health is to promote healthier populations, because healthier people create solid foundations for sustainable health systems and provide economic and social benefits for all.

Relationship to Other Components of the Health System

Public health is distinguished from other components of the health system by two underlying characteristics:

  1. A focus on the health of populations as a whole instead of individuals.
  2. A focus on the promotion of health and the prevention (and control) of diseases and injuries, rather than treatment of diseases.

These principles allow public health to work in a complementary way with the rest of the health system. 

An example of disease prevention can be found in tobacco control and cessation. Public health professionals work with various partners and institutions ranging from policymakers to the public to make cigarettes less accessible by regulation (taxation, restriction of advertisements and minimal legal age for purchasing) and health promotion (educational and social marketing targeted at encouraging youth not to smoke). Health care professionals actively engage in counselling and providing pharmaceutical supports to help high-risk individuals quit smoking.

An example of working together was the preparation for and management of the H1N1 pandemic. Public health was responsible for developing pandemic preparedness protocols and guidelines on federal, provincial, territorial and local levels prior to the emergence of the H1N1 influenza virus. Throughout the pandemic, public health carried out active surveillance of H1N1 activity, coordinated H1N1 vaccine clinics and assessment centres, and communicated current information to health care professionals. Health care professionals also had an integral part in pandemic preparedness and management by regularly reviewing H1N1 updates and protocols, providing clinical expertise to guide and inform pandemic management policies, and delivering health care services to the public.

This ability for public health to work in tandem with the other parts of the health system is vital to a well-functioning system, which is ultimately essential to both individual and population health.


One of the most important components of public health is its reliance on multi-sectoral partnerships. Multi-sectoral partnerships are necessary because everyone has a role to play in public health activities and programs. This may include a new mother concerned about her baby’s hearing, an organization advocating for reductions in childhood obesity, or a business group looking to develop healthy policies in the workplace.

National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health. (2003). Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada.

3. What do Public Health Professionals Do?

Public health officials include doctors, nurses, public health inspectors, environmental health officers, dietitians, dental hygienists, tobacco control officers, drinking water officers, vision screening technologists, mental health and addictions specialists, and a wide variety of other health care professionals. These health professionals share the common goal of protecting and promoting the health of a population through activities such as

  • Providing immunization clinics.
  • Implementing maternal and child health promotion programs.
  • Inspecting food establishments to ensure people have access to safe food.
  • Investigating disease outbreaks and hazards to health and coordinating public health responses to health threats.
  • Designing surveillance systems and conducting epidemiological studies to study the health status of British Columbians.

They have core values, attitudes, skills and knowledge (known as “core competencies”) that allow them to carry out the work of public health.

4. How is the Public Health System Organized in BC?

Ministry of Health

The mission of the Ministry of Health is “to guide and enhance the province’s health services in order to ensure British Columbians are supported in their efforts to maintain and improve their health.”

The Ministry of Health acts as the steward of BC’s health system. It has overall responsibility for ensuring that quality, appropriate, cost-effective and timely health services are available for all British Columbians. It sets the overall direction for the system, provides a legislative and regulatory framework to allow it to function smoothly, and plans for the future supply and use of health professionals, technology and facilities. The ministry supports and funds the activities of all regional health authorities, including all public health programs and services in British Columbia.

The ministry’s Population and Public Health Division is the focal point for the provincially coordinated and regionally delivered public health system. The division focuses on improving the population’s overall health and well-being by promoting health; preventing disease, disability and injury; protecting the population from harm; and addressing inequities in health status in populations and sub-populations.

Health Authorities

The province’s health authorities are the organizations primarily responsible for health service delivery. Five regional health authorities deliver a full range of health services, including public health services, to meet the needs of the populations within their respective regions.

A sixth health authority, the Provincial Health Services Authority, is responsible for ensuring that BC residents have access to a coordinated network of high-quality specialized health services. The BC Centre for Disease Control is an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. It provides provincial and national leadership in public health through surveillance, detection, treatment, prevention and consultation services.

The First Nations Health Authority represents a new relationship between BC First Nations, the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada. The health authority aims to improve health outcomes for First Nations people in British Columbia.