What is Community Health?


What is community health? This colorful illustration points to "health spots" on a map, illustrating that community health is focused on protecting the health of a geographic population.

A healthy community benefits every person in it. And community health is one means of achieving a healthy community.

The field of public health aims to protect and improve health by addressing the structures and systems that define a place—and by supporting the people who live and work there in making healthy choices. Problems are studied, data is collected and resources are gathered to help solve those problems.

Community health falls under the public health umbrella, bringing those broader topics down to the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life.

The workers in this field are the frontline representatives of the health care team. Often, they are members of the community themselves. They reach out, trying to immerse themselves with folks who may not see a doctor or specialist regularly and who might even have some hesitancy dealing with a system that can be confusing, time-consuming and expensive.

Because they are engaged with everyone—children and the elderly, well-to-do and poor, able-bodied and disabled—community health workers have an in-depth knowledge of the living conditions, challenges and concerns of that population.

Community health focuses on an overall geographic area rather than on shared characteristics such as age or diagnosis. The defined area could be as small as a neighborhood, or it could encompass a city or an entire region.

Professionals help communities prevent disease and promote healthy living by examining health through the lens of neighborhood structures and even policy decisions. For example, they would promote the use of shared outdoor spaces to encourage physical activity and community-building.

But these experts do not work in silos.

Collaborations Across Health Care

The resources community health professionals create are shaped by the needs of the individual members of a community and informed by the community and its schools, places of worship, social workers, local government and health care providers. Collaboration extends across the health care continuum and into the community.

Therefore, people in the field may be more involved in local government than other health care workers would be. They often become advocates for policy change and focus more closely on healthy equity and socioeconomic disparity.

Factors in Community Health

Socio-cultural factors, including the beliefs, norms and traditions of a place, shape attitudes toward health and influence the habits that contribute to healthful practices or detract from them.

Access is a key point for health professionals—giving everyone, but especially those most on the margins—access to healthy food, safe and reliable child care, after-school programs and transportation services.

Geographical and environmental health factors are also priorities, including disease prevalence, overcrowding, industrial development and pollution levels.

Community health workers think through the “how” as much as the “what,” taking on the responsibility of the long-term wellness of vulnerable populations. That includes collaborating across multiple sectors, employing culturally sensitive methods, and using scientific and evidence-based approaches to address not just the needs, but also the interests of the defined group.

The benefit to individuals is obvious, if not always immediate. But the benefits extend to the framework of the community itself, and to schools, businesses and gathering places. Money is saved, absenteeism is reduced, mental health improves and the spread of disease declines.

Community health workers are integral to creating and maintaining welcoming and comfortable communities for all.

Education Opportunities in Public Health

Want to delve deeper into public health and discover how to build a career in the field? Elmhurst University’s Master of Public Health program prepares you to take on complex challenges that affect the people living in your community and around the globe.

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Posted March 10, 2020

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