EDITOR’S NOTE:Karolyn Holden is the director of the Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Department. This is the first installment of a periodic column she will write for Grays Harbor News Group readers on topics of concern to public health.
About a month ago, I was asked to compose a regular feature for The Vidette and Grays Harbor News Group about issues related to public health. It makes some sense — I am the director of the county’s Public Health and Social Services Department — but I have to admit that I usually do not seek out any kind of spotlight.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the opportunity because I think public health is a big deal. I also think it’s extremely cool, and like other public health wonks, I often think about how we can do better at describing what we do.
To begin, what do I mean by public health, and how is it different than “health” or “health care?”
A healthy public needs access to health care, but public health and health care aren’t the same. Your health care provider would diagnose your high blood pressure and recommend measures like losing weight or taking medication to bring it down. Public health (meaning a county’s health department) would look at the county’s rates of death from heart attack or stroke and recommend measures like safe pedestrian routes or bike lanes to make it easier for people to be physically active in their daily life — and prevent high blood pressure in the first place.
Public health got its start when governments began taking action to stop or prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases like smallpox, typhoid and tuberculosis. Keeping the sewage out of the water supply, washing your hands before delivering a baby and separating sick people from the well might seem pretty obvious now, but 250 years ago, the mechanisms that spread disease were not so clear.
Life expectancy has doubled over the past 200 years because of the application of basic public health measures. In the meantime, almost everything about the way we live our daily lives has changed, and the big problems impacting our health have changed too. Public health methods are no longer quite so basic and they are applied to a dizzying number of current-day problems.
As I contemplate how to use this space and your time, I see endless possibilities.
Public health is a big topic, and I could write for many years and only scratch the surface.
I’ve decided to focus on what I really care about and hope that you too find it interesting and relevant.
I hope you’ll look with me through the lens of public health. It’s a particular lens that is focused on achieving a public good — improved health for everyone — while respecting individual autonomy. We can use it to bring health data, services and programs, research, and current events into view illuminated by the public health values I appreciate the most: hope, resilience and recovery.
Karolyn Holden, director of the Grays Harbor County Public Health and Social Services Department, can be reached at 360-532-8631 or kholden@
co.grays-harbor.wa.us. The department’s website is HealthyGH.org.