The Purpose of Government Health Departments
People who work in public health strive to prevent disease and promote the welfare of citizens. Public health is composed of many activities, including the issuance of birth certificates, certification of day care facilities and inspection of restaurants. In some instances, these activities are conducted at the federal level. Other community health matters, however, are governed at the state and local levels.
State Boards of Health
In the United States, state and county governments often provide health and human services. Most states have a distinct board concerned with health, separate from other considerations. This board is likely to be responsible for making, adopting and enforcing rules and regulations pursuant to state health codes. State boards of health usually exist to implement coordinated programs that protect citizens' health. Specific functions may include the following:
- Prevent and control chronic disease
- Reduce disparities in health care and health status
- Improve the state's public health infrastructure
- Improve the health and well-being of all citizens
State boards usually set standards for local boards of health and health services. The state board may also appoint local and district board of health members. In many instances, the state board advises the governor on health-related issues, such as widespread disease outbreaks or occurrences of localized food poisoning. These boards may also identify health-related issues and formulate policy, such as those relative to mental health or long-term care facilities. Such policies are often designed to enhance citizens' quality of life through improved health. Health departments at the state level may also contain separate divisions for environmental health. Included within this division may be sections to handle toxicology, epidemiology, emergency preparedness and healthy homes. Toxicology may concern services relative to the effects of environmental contamination on human health. Similarly, epidemiology often pertains to workplace hazards. Emergency preparedness often provides services related to chemical events that may pose threats to human health, and health homes usually assess home inspectors and prevent living conditions that may be unhealthy.
Localized Department of Health Services
County health departments often provide localized services and keep residents aware of health influences within the community. Examples of services may include birthing practices, safe sex education classes and hearing testing for children. These departments may also provide immunization programs, inspect public swimming facilities and administer such welfare programs as that of Women, Infants and Children (WIC). County health departments are also likely to be concerned with communicable diseases and workplace safety inspections. Primary health care and dental services may also be available from community health departments. These are often provided to under-served residents without insurance benefits. Services are provided regardless of age, race, color, national origin or disability. Administrative services such as vital records may further be provided by county health departments. These area facilities may also consort with regional, state and federal partners to protect area residents during public health crises. Communicable disease personnel may work with area physicians and hospitals to implement strategies that minimize disease outbreaks, while other staff members may identify disease trends. In turn, this information is likely to be presented to the community through print and electronic media.
Federal Health Agencies
In the United States, federal health agencies often exist to guide and collaborate with state or local departments. The State Health Policy Consortium, for example, was established through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It facilitates the electronic exchange of health information across state lines. Similarly, the Federal Health Architecture (FHA) is an e-government initiative formed to coordinate information technology services among more than 20 federal agencies that provide healthcare to citizens. The American Public Health Association is a group of public health officials organized in 1872. It strives to protect Americans from preventable, serious health threats and to assure community-based health services are universally accessible in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is another government agency intended to provide citizens with accurate information concerning disease, healthy living and travelers' health. This agency also conducts research, provides statistics and prepares the population for new health threats.