If you work in public health I am sure that, like me, you’ve had questions over the years from friends and family like “so what is public health, and what do you do?”

Sometimes the answer is very straightforward. This was the case three decades ago when I worked as an NHS dietitian in a large general hospital in the North West of England. In my monthly community-based clinic in a hugely deprived part of Liverpool, my job was to treat the individual’s condition to help them to stay healthy.

However, the wider determinants of health, poverty and disadvantage were the reality for the communities we served each and every day, and impacted on their health outcomes.

The questions “what is public health” and “what do you do?” then seem harder to answer, but they shouldn’t be.

As the years have gone on, I have had the opportunity to work across different parts of the public health system that tackle the inequalities that continue to face our communities, including in local government and directly with communities.

Put simply, the answers become that in public health we work together with other public services to help address wider factors affecting people’s lives (for example, their living conditions or their access to health services) to improve the long-lasting good health and wellbeing of their local communities. This has become even more necessary as we live through a global pandemic.

It was with this driver of collaboration in mind that Public Health Scotland made a workforce commitment to enable more people in public services to understand how we work to improve population health and reduce health inequalities, and increase knowledge about the part they can play. The outcome is a digital learning hub called ‘Introduction to Public Health’, which launched this week.

PHS works with a tremendous number of colleagues from a range of sectors who all have a role to play in delivering public health. We invited a number of them to contribute to the learning hub to help bring public health to life from their perspectives. From the hub, you can hear directly from them on what they do, and how they work to improve health outcomes in partnerships with others.

These examples of real-life practice are in bite-size chunks, supported by reflective activities to consider the roles of those working in local government, NHS, third sector and in communities.

At first look the broader picture of what public health it may seem complex or difficult to answer simply. But in explaining how public health brings together experience from a wide range of organisations to improve the health of a population, it helps the answer remain straightforward.

The new learning hub can help all of us working in public services to see how we contribute to public health outcomes through our actions, and to answer the question of what public health is. Thirty years on, it’s something I would have found useful back working in Liverpool. Next time the question comes up within your groups of friends and family, you will hopefully find it useful too.

View the Introduction to Public Health Learning Hub.

Fiona MacDonald is the Organisational Lead for Public Health Workforce Development.

Last updated: 06 October 2022