Essential Terms for Public Health Professionals working in Healthcare

Language creates reality, it does not describe it.  That is one of the principles that has emerged from anthropology, linguistics and philosophy from authors as diverse as Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Searle and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Confusion about language and the meaning of the terms being used is one of the main causes of arguments, fruitless arguments, which disappear if everyone shares the same understanding of the terms being used.

Public Health professionals use a language that is rich in terms and which have no universally agreed definition; terms such as social justice or sustainability.  There are other terms where there is an agreed meaning, usually more technical scientific terms such as meta-analysis.  One of the reasons why public health professionals do not have a strong corporate culture is because no attempt has been made to develop a common core of concepts, and terms relating to these concepts, with the objective that everyone practising as a public health professional would use the term and concept with the same meaning.

A project has been designed to develop such a common core.  There are of course dictionaries of public health, notably by John Last and by Professor Williams in Swansea, but within the concept of a dictionary there is a glossary, a subset of terms of vital importance for everyone in the community of practice to use.  It could also be argued that if such a set of terms were identified and the meanings agreed, that they should be taught to new practitioners at an early stage in their induction to the profession.

A project was sponsored to stimulate discussion on core terms and common meanings and the first set of 10 terms represented here are a basis for discussion. For each term there is a bottom line drawn from one of the sources cited and a short commentary.

  • Culture: Culture is the set of important understandings (often unstated) that members of a community share in common.
  • Emergence: Much coming from little.
  • Equity: Equity is a subjective judgment of unfairness.
  • Health Promotion: Health promotion is the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.
  • Health Protection: “Health protection comprises legal or fiscal controls, other regulations and policies, and voluntary codes of practice, aimed at … the prevention of ill-health.
  •  Justice: To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize – income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honours.
  • Risk: “The chance that something (good or bad) will happen.”
  • Sustainability: “Protecting resources from one generation to the next.”
  • System: A set of activities with a common set of objectives with an annual report
  • Value: “…value is expressed as what we gain relative to what we give up – the benefit relative to the cost.”