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Why Community Health Is Important for Public Health

May 21, 2020

A young first-time mother receives at-home nurse visits as part of a community outreach program. A weekly clinic targeting high diabetes rates helps a struggling man with diabetes gain nutritional control and reduce symptoms. These success stories illustrate how improving the quality of life in communities is an essential part of public health.

A public health worker’s goal in community-focused care is to enhance healthcare services and patient outcomes in targeted populations. By applying public health theory on a local, personalized level, community health providers can cater services to a specific demographic and support wellness in communities that might otherwise lack access to care.

Community health programs address disparities by ensuring equitable access to health resources. Such disparities include living in an isolated rural area with limited healthcare providers or being unable to afford health insurance. Community health centers can serve as primary care providers in communities where socioeconomic factors limit health equity.

Individuals with a public health education who want to apply those principles to address a local population’s needs must understand the area’s unique characteristics. This allows them to interact dynamically with community members and create a lasting positive impact on the population. Exploring why community health is important for public health fosters a holistic understanding of how one influences the other and the impact of community-level efforts. 

What Is Community Health?

Community health is the collective well-being of community members. In addition to living in the same neighborhood or region, some populations may share health characteristics, ethnicities, and socioeconomic conditions.

For instance, some low-income communities might experience high obesity rates due to the limited availability of nutritious foods in local grocery stores. Areas such as these are commonly known as food deserts.

As another example, a population might be exposed to contaminants from a nearby plant or waste facility, which may lead to similar health outcomes in a certain community. 

Community health programs improve access to preventive healthcare services, engage citizens in care decisions, and seek lower medical costs. 

Community Health Elements

Public health professionals engaged in community health identify how variables related to socioeconomic status — such as income levels, nutrition, crime, and transportation resources — impact people. They also determine how the community’s medical and educational resources contribute to residents’ lifestyles and what improvements are called for. Key elements of community health include:

  • Identifying top public health concerns within the specific geographic area, such as environmental and social factors that affect healthy life choices.
  • Developing an intervention plan to address resource gaps in the community, such as establishing community health centers, mobile clinics, and outreach programs.
  • Educating residents on the benefits of preventive care and healthy behaviors to facilitate life changes.
  • Providing essential services such as health screenings, social support, and counseling.
  • Helping residents gain access to resources such as affordable medical, dental, and mental healthcare services; insurance (Medicare or Medicaid enrollment); translation and transportation services; or housing, food, and education.
  • Reducing the need for expensive emergency care and hospitalizations.
  • Advocating for improved care for at-risk populations to state and federal policymakers.
  • Working with other community agencies to address the area’s mental, physical, cultural, and social characteristics, including nutrition, housing, and transportation. 

Community Health Goals

The goal of a community health provider is to offer comprehensive services that grant communities direct and immediate access to essential resources, including medical, dental, pharmaceutical, and mental health care. By educating area residents on what resources are available and providing the tools to access care, public health leaders empower people to take control of their own health.

Community public health initiatives focus on identifying specific geographic areas with high levels of need and helping those communities overcome barriers to living healthier lives. Community members’ average lifespans are heavily influenced by the inequities that restrict access to healthy food, affordable health care, education, employment opportunities, and mental health support, according to KFF.

Community health professionals form strong bonds with citizens, as well as area healthcare and social services providers. This enables them to complete essential tasks, such as uncovering regional health risks, educating residents on healthy behaviors, or establishing community health resources to close gaps in care.

Community health differs from the similar concept of population health management, which considers a population’s health outcomes based on a wider range of factors beyond just geography. Hospitals use population health management tactics to improve chronic disease management or to avoid readmissions. 

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Why Community Health Is Important

Approximately six out of every ten Americans suffer from a chronic health condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many do not get proper care due to socioeconomic factors beyond their control. An older diabetic patient without a driver’s license and no family nearby, a pregnant woman with toxemia living more than 50 miles from a hospital — both are at high risk in a medical emergency. Reducing the risk of potentially fatal healthcare scenarios is why community health is important. However, accomplishing this requires a multifaceted approach. 

Addressing Health Disparities

Healthcare disparities can be especially prevalent in rural and low-income communities where hospitals have closed down and physician shortages exist. These populations may be exposed to higher levels of poverty, homelessness, substance misuse, and other risk factors. When a community health system created to address unmet needs takes account of the community’s unique characteristics, the community’s overall quality of care can be vastly improved.

The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) is doing its part to address some of the major health disparities that have been plaguing the nation. According to the HRSA’s most recent health equity fact sheet, they have:

  • Delivered primary care services to over 30 million residents living in underserved or rural communities.
  • Increased how many children are served through HRSA-funded health centers with school-based service sites by 24 percent in the past two years.
  • Achieved viral suppression in approximately 90 percent of HIV patients who received treatment through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.
  • Helped launch over 100 new, community-based Healthy Start projects.
  • Supported the training and education of approximately 7,200 substance use disorder care providers and 7,000 behavioral health providers.
  • Provided loan repayments and scholarships to approximately 22,000 clinicians for practicing in underserved communities.

Lowering Healthcare Costs

Community health is an important element of health reform efforts that aim to lower national healthcare expenses. The cost of health care in the U.S. in 2022 represented 16.6 percent of GDP, a much higher percentage than Germany, Canada, France, and Japan, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. About one-third of this spending goes toward hospital care, so costs might drop if the U.S. model of care shifts toward more affordable outpatient care facilities such as community health clinics.

Community health providers operate under a patient-centered care model, involving patients in care decisions. This model allows providers to steer patients away from costly trips to the emergency room and help them avoid relapses. 

Enacting Public Health Initiatives

Community health resources have become essential assets in public health initiatives such as combating the opioid crisis and stemming the HIV epidemic. Opioid deaths and drug-related overdoses in the U.S. are responsible for approximately 106,000 fatalities, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and community health centers are on the front line of federal efforts to reduce preventable drug overdose deaths.

These clinics are also working to decrease the estimated 56,000 new HIV infections that occur in the U.S. each year. The holistic model of community care allows practitioners to treat and prevent a multitude of conditions simultaneously. 

Community Health vs. Public Health

Community health and public health are often used interchangeably in discussions about health care, but they represent distinct concepts with different focuses, scopes, and methods. Both public and community health are important because they play crucial roles in the overall well-being of societies. However, their approaches and implementations can vary significantly.

Community health focuses on specific geographic areas or populations. It emphasizes the health outcomes and needs of these particular groups, addressing issues that are directly impactful at a local level. Public health, on the other hand, deals with the health and well-being of the entire population at the national or global level. Public health professionals work on a broader spectrum, dealing with aspects such as policy-making, disease prevention, education, and epidemic control that affect large populations. 

Further differentiating community health and public health are the methods and strategies employed. Community health often involves direct interaction with community members. This can include health education sessions, local health screenings, and partnerships with local organizations to deliver services that are tailored to the community and improve health outcomes. 

In contrast, public health uses a more analytical and policy-oriented approach. Public health professionals analyze data on health trends and disease outbreaks to develop strategies that prevent and control diseases on a wide scale. They often advocate for public health laws, regulations, and policies that govern everything from environmental health and safety standards to managing communicable diseases.

Community Health Services and Resources

Community health services providers want to change the model of care from treating illness to maintaining wellness. This challenge is addressed by comprehensively tackling patients’ well-being and not just band-aiding ailments that will soon resurface without proper preventive and maintenance care. Essentially, it is a shift from reactive treatment to proactive healthcare management. 

By combining medical, oral health, mental health, substance misuse, and pharmacy care with support services including health education, transportation to appointments, and bilingual staff, community health resource providers make sure that access to care is not restricted by geographic, economic, or cultural barriers, according to the HRSA. 

Community Health Centers

Federally funded community health centers (CHCs) provide affordable healthcare options to more than 30 million people in the U.S., according to the HRSA. The clinics are designed to improve access to primary care services regardless of whether patients have insurance, speak languages other than English, or live in remote areas.

These centers often target groups facing health disparities and limited care resources, including patients living in poverty, rural residents, veterans, and people experiencing homelessness. Clinics typically use a sliding scale for fees and provide care even when patients cannot pay.

Typical services include:

  • Preventive and primary care services (including medical and dental checkups and chronic condition management)
  • Disease prevention (vaccinations, anti-smoking programs, and obesity screenings)
  • Patient education (nutritional counseling, injury prevention, and disease information)
  • Mental health services (screenings and counseling)
  • Substance misuse treatment

By providing comprehensive preventive care and helping patients monitor chronic conditions, CHCs serve to lower medical costs by reducing expensive emergency department visits and hospital stays. Many of these clinics operate as patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs). According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, the 14,000 Community Health Center sites in the United States serve approximately 30 million patients and generate nearly $85 billion in economic output.

Most CHCs receive federal grant funding under the Health Center Program, which aims to improve health care for vulnerable populations. Many CHCs also receive funding and operational support from state agencies and nonprofit charitable organizations. 

Public Outreach Programs

Public outreach campaigns include direct medical care programs along with educational materials, advertisements, and social media posts that encourage healthy lifestyles. Some organizations operate mobile and pop-up clinics that offer disease prevention programs within the community. To extend public education into all aspects of the community, health workers will often partner with local political systems, social work agencies, and schools. 

Community Mental Health Centers

Community health centers provide frontline services in the behavioral health arena. The demand for behavioral health-focused community clinics is strong. Substance misuse treatment centers are also being established at a growing rate as many regions across the nation struggle to reduce overdose deaths.

A Medicare-designated community mental health center is defined as providing screening, outpatient therapy, rehabilitation, day treatment, and 24-hour emergency services to chronically ill patients or those recently discharged from inpatient care. States also oversee mental health resources. 

Careers in Community Health

Public and community health workers are engaged in a broad scope of activities, including research, education, program development, program management, medical care, and charitable aid. Roles can range from leadership positions to frontline caregivers, underscoring the importance of community health initiatives at every level. Professionals seeking careers in community health might work in medical, educational, government, corporate, or nonprofit settings. 

Community Health Worker

A community health worker is defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as someone who assists communities and individuals in adopting healthy behaviors. Job duties include outreach on behalf of medical organizations and implementing community health programs. Community health workers are also involved in basic medical screenings or care; informal counseling; research; and health education and advocacy.

Community health professionals serve as a bridge between community members and medical and social service providers and often live in the community. To promote healthy behaviors, a community health worker helps people get better access to medical resources as well as transportation, housing, and nutrition.

Additionally, a community health worker develops cultural sensitivity and establishes relationships with local residents to establish bonds of trust. Such workers also need to balance activities in client advocacy, public education, and medical service provision.

Program Director

The program director or clinical director of a community health program or community health center takes overall responsibility for the organization’s goals and accomplishments. A director improves access to care in the community, identifying and filling gaps in care services, and reducing emergency medical care through preventive measures.

Skills that foster establishing rapport with community members are especially important for program directors. Program directors must have strong leadership, communication, and management skills, in addition to a foundation in public health advocacy. 

Research Analyst

A researcher career in the community health field entails gathering information about health issues and risks for specific geographic areas or populations. Researchers collect essential information on socioeconomic conditions, health disparities, and community health resources’ effectiveness through data evaluation and direct interaction with local residents.

A researcher might investigate environmental hazards, infectious disease risks, or other regional threats. Community research analysts provide statistical reports and environmental evaluations to help administrators create innovative health advocacy and improvement programs. 

Medical Professional

An education or early career in community health sciences can form a solid foundation for a career in medicine as a physician, psychiatrist, or nurse practitioner, and might even lead the health professional to practice in an at-risk geographic area. A community health worker might also go on to become a hospital administrator or government health official.

How to Improve Community Health

Improving community health is a multifaceted endeavor that requires collaboration, tailored interventions, and sustained efforts over time. Successful strategies involve a combination of health promotion, disease prevention, and community engagement, along with improvements in economic, social, and environmental conditions. Specific tactics to improve community health include:

  • Engaging with community members through public forums, surveys, and community meetings so that a healthy dialogue is established and they have easy access to essential healthcare information.
  • Improving community access to essential healthcare services, including hospitals, clinics, mobile health clinics, and telemedicine services.
  • Promoting the importance and effectiveness of preventative healthcare strategies using nutrition education, physical activity initiatives, and programs that help community members stop smoking and curb addiction issues.
  • Directly addressing the social, economic, and environmental factors that challenge community health with innovative solutions and programs.
  • Building key partnerships with healthcare providers, businesses, schools, religious organizations, and other community groups to collectively tackle health issues as a team. 

Earn a Master of Public Health Degree and Help Communities Grow

Establishing public health programs that cater to targeted populations enables public health professionals to improve the quality of care for all communities. To develop effective community health programs, professionals must develop strong competencies in evaluating health environments, understanding local cultures, identifying disparities, strategizing interventions, and creating trusting relationships with local residents and officials. Such skills require a high level of dedication and tenacity.

Pursuing an Online Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine emboldens students to apply transformative health equity principles and innovative solution-building skills to empower communities in need. MPH students often gain a passion for equality and the drive to enact change for vulnerable populations. 

By covering topics including physical health, mental health, disease management, leadership, and social justice, the MPH program enables graduates to holistically understand why community health is important so they are equipped to cultivate healthier communities around the globe. 

Advance Your Public Health Career with an MPH

Pursue Your Degree Online From Tulane University
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Recommended Readings:

Community-Based Participatory Research in Public Health

Health Disparities and Health Inequities: Impact and Advocacy

Mental Health Advocacy and Its Importance in Public Health


American Hospital Association, What Is Community Health?

American Progress, “Top 10 Ways To Improve Health and Health Equity”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC’s HIV Prevention Progress in the United States

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chronic Disease

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Community Health Assessments & Health Improvement Plans

Elevance Health, “What Are the Differences Between Population Health, Public Health, and Community Health?”

Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), Health Resources and Services Administration

Health Equity Fact Sheet

Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), Impact of the Health Center Program, U.S. Statistics

KFF, “What is Driving Widening Racial Disparities in Life Expectancy?”

Louisiana Department of Health, Community Mental Health Center

Louisiana Department of Health, Office of Behavioral Health – Mental Health Services

Mental Health America, The State Of Mental Health In America

National Association of Community Health Centers, Economic Impact of Community

Health Centers in the United States

National Association of Community Health Centers, “What Is a Community Health Center?”

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug Overdose Death Rates

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Health Statistics 2023

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Education Specialists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2023 21-1094 Community Health Workers