What Is the Difference Between Public Health and Community Health?

Public health and community health are two terms that are often interchanged. While there is some overlap between the two, there are distinct differences.

An advanced nursing degree can help professionals distinguish between the two terms. However, those considering a career in either public or community health should also understand the following essential information.

Public Health Characteristics

Both “public health” — which is sometimes referred to as population health — and “community health” serve a crucial purpose in society’s healthcare experience. However, the strategies and goals of each differ slightly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes public health as, “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities […]. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations. These populations can be as small as a local neighborhood, or as big as an entire country or region of the world.”

Healthcare professionals work toward this goal by:

  • promoting healthy lifestyles
  • researching disease
  • injury prevention
  • detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases (like COVID-19)

Community Health Characteristics

Community health shares in the goals of the public health sector, but efforts are primarily organized around a geographical area. Another key difference is that community health focuses heavily on local government laws and policy that impact health — more so than public health.

“Health equity and socioeconomic disparities are a primary concern for community health organizations, requiring stakeholders to move far beyond the clinical sphere with their efforts,” states Jennifer Bresnick, contributor to Population Health. “Initiatives require a collaborative approach that includes community members, school systems, social workers, local government, and the healthcare provider system.”

For example, efforts within community health often target foundational socioeconomic challenges and disparities in urban or rural environments, such as:

  • access to healthy food
  • safe and reliable childcare
  • after-school programs
  • transportation services
  • safe opportunities for physical activity
  • community-building

The CDC provides a succinct definition in this way: “The goal of these community-level efforts is to make healthy living easier where people live, learn, work, and play. We place a special focus on reaching people who are affected most by death, disability, and suffering from chronic diseases.”

What Skills Are Necessary to Work in Public Health and Community Health?

Because the two disciplines are related, anyone pursuing a career in either public health or community health can benefit from understanding how each sector operates. At Worcester State University (WSU), the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Public & Population Health Online program helps students gain knowledge and skills in both population and community health.

This program emphasizes informatics and data science as core competencies. However, it is a fully comprehensive curriculum. Courses related to both public and community health include:

1) Informatics and Data Science for Population and Public Health. Students study informatics in public health (surveillance, prevention, preparedness, health promotion). Coursework encompasses health data analysis, data visualization, information retrieval methods, and simple association analysis.

2) Public and Population Health Nursing Theory and Practice. This course covers the history of public health and public health nursing, public health law and ethics, system infrastructure, and health equity/disparities. Students develop models in order to assess and deliver healthcare that promotes a culture of health in identified populations.

3) Public and Global Health Policy, Politics, and Progress. Students examine the role of federal, state, and local governments in the advancement of public health. They also explore advocacy, political, and creative processes related to health policy formulation, implementation, and modification of health policy.

Graduates of WSU’s program are prepared for several career opportunities and leadership positions in healthcare. As the program page states, “The comprehensive MSN Public & Population Health degree leads you to advanced community roles that even an MPH cannot, such as expanded nursing positions, unique teaching opportunities, and global clinical healthcare service. [It also] prepares you for further post-graduate or doctoral study.”

As the United States continues to face various challenges within healthcare’s scope, the need for strong community health and public health professionals will persist. Ensuring skilled professionals exist in both areas gets us one step closer to a healthier, safer world.

Learn more about Worcester State University’s online Master of Science in Nursing Public & Population Health program.

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