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What is Public Health?


By Barbara Kreling, PhD, MPH
Faculty Member, Public Health at American Public University

The field of public health includes research into patient care and patient decision-making. Public Health researchers are employed at universities and devote their time to studying various public health issues, diseases and concerns. As an example, one such public health research career can focus on patient decision-making.  As a qualitative researcher, I have studied knowledge, beliefs, and preferences for treatment in different patient groups such as the elderly and various ethnic groups. This research has been used to study breast cancer, end of life care, elderly hospitalized adults, and pediatrics. Partly grounded in medical anthropology, the research explores the intersection of culture and health and answers such questions as:

  • Why are insured Latino breast cancer patients less likely than whites to have indicated chemotherapy?
  • Why are minority groups less likely to use hospice?

At American Public University, we are teaching students to evaluate cultural characteristics, social roles, and behavioral factors that contribute to disease, injury prevention and service delivery through the class, Social and Behavioral Aspects of Health PH527. This course includes analysis of the role and causes of social and community factors, including race/ethnicity and culture, in both the onset and solution of health problems. Students learn to evaluate how participatory planning with special populations can enhance the effectiveness of public health services professional ethics and practices as they relate to equity and accountability in diverse community settings.

Therefore, to understand the field of public health involves research and study into the myriad of health issues. In our Research Methods in Public Health (PH550) class students are provided with the research skills to evaluate public policy and to assess interventions to improve treatment and prevention programs. Each disease and treatment, and each health service is affected by patient behavior based on their perceptions, beliefs, and preferences.  These preferences, often related to culture, can affect prevention, compliance with treatment, use of services, and, eventually, morbidity and mortality.  Qualitative research is suited to understanding behavior and reasoning.  This understanding is used to create or add to the foundation of knowledge about the causes, treatments and rehabilitation processes involved in each disease. The study of different populations helps public health researchers guide improvement in health care to reduce health disparities in the US.


About the Author:

Dr. Kreling is a researcher/ teacher with more than 25 years of experience in Public Health conducting grant-funded quantitative and qualitative research projects in health care.  Her interests include patient decision-making and health and culture.  She holds an MPH and a PhD from Walden University.