Story: Public health

Page 1. What is public health?

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Public health means health and medical initiatives that focus on:

  • the prevention of disease
  • the promotion of good health
  • populations rather than individuals.

Public health professionals work in health protection and promotion rather than patient care in clinics and hospitals.

The substantial improvements in health since the 19th century have been largely attributed to public health initiatives and disease control rather than medical interventions – prevention has been more effective than cure.

The term ‘public health’ is sometimes used (by lay people) to describe health services that are funded by government through taxation – the public health system

Old and new models

The old or traditional model of public health was primarily concerned with sanitation and hygiene and, later, clean water and air. The new model, which arose in the late 20th century, added consideration of social, cultural and political factors as determinants of health, along with personal behaviour and lifestyle. In New Zealand, ethnicity is added to this list of factors.


The Ministry of Health oversees public health, a role enshrined in the Health Act 1956. This act also sets out local government’s public health powers and responsibilities. Local government’s role in public health was enhanced by the Local Government Act 2002. District health boards are required to promote and improve the health of communities under the Public Health and Disability Act 2000. Other government agencies (for example, those with social welfare, housing and transport responsibilities) also play a role in public health.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Public health - What is public health?', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 June 2019)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 28 Nov 2018