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Public Health Terms

Glossary of a Few Key Public Health Terms

Some of the following terms are used throughout the Colorado Office of Health Disparities Web site. Some may be found in the 2005 Health Disparities Report. Others are simply useful public health terms to know, especially with respect to racial and ethnic health disparities.


The potential for or actual entry of a population into the health system. Entry is dependent on the wants, resources, and needs that individuals bring to the care-seeking process. Ability to obtain wanted or needed services may be influenced by many factors, including travel distance, waiting time, available financial resources, and availability of a regular source of care.

How people literally embody and biologically express experiences of economic and social inequality, from in utero to death. Example include biological expressions of poverty, deprivation (material and social), and diverse types of discrimination.

The resources, skills, and abilities to perform essential public health functions. (Also see "Infrastructure.")

In epidemiology, a countable instance in the population of a particular disease, health disorder, or condition. Sometimes, an individual with the particular condition.

A group of people who have common characteristics; communities can be defined by location, race, ethnicity, age occupation, interest in particular problems or outcomes, or other common bonds. Ideally, there should be available assets and resources, as well as collective discussion, decision making, and action.

A measure of association or relationship between two variables that indicates the strength (strong, moderate, weak) of the association and whether the association is positive or negative. A simplified example of a positive correlation: As poverty increase, crime increases. A simplified example of negative correlation: As physical activity increases, cholesterol decreases. However, correlation is not causation. In other words, it tells us a relationship can be observed, but it does not tell us whether a change in one variable necessarily causes the change in the other.

Is a developmental process that evolves over an extended period of time. Individuals, organizations, and systems are at various levels of awareness, knowledge and skills along the cultural competence continuum. It requires organizations to:


  • Have a defined set of values and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, and structures that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally;


  • Have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge, and (5) adapt to the diversity and cultural contexts of communities they serve;


  • Incorporate the above into all aspects of policymaking, administration, practice, and service delivery and systematically involve consumers, key stakeholders and communities.

The leading factors that contribute in aggregate to health status in an individual or populations. Determinants include: income, education level, living environment, personal behavior, health care access, genetics and social/cultural issues.

Diversity refers to other individual differences and characteristics by which persons may self-define. This includes but is not limited to an individual's age, gender, sexual orientation, religion or spiritual identification, physical ability/disability, social and economic class background, and residential location.

The study of the distribution and determinants of health-related or events in specified human populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.

A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

A statistically significant difference in a health indicator between groups that persists over time. (Also see "Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities.")

1) Distribution of disease, disability and death in such a way as to not create a disproportionate burden on one population.
2) The absence of persistent health differences over time, between racial and ethnic groups.

A measure that reflects, or indicates, the state of health of persons in a defined population. Examples - rates of disease, disability and death.

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals can obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services they need to make appropriate health decisions. But health literacy goes beyond the individual. It also depends upon the skills, preferences, and expectations of those health information providers: our doctors, nurses, administrators, home health workers, the media, and many others. Health literacy arises from a convergence of education, health services, and social and cultural factors, and brings together research and practice from diverse fields.

The national disease prevention and health promotion agenda that includes a statement of 476 national health objectives to be achieved by 2010. One of the two overarching goals is to eliminate health disparities.

A measure of the health condition in the population; generally the number of new cases occurring during a specified time period.

The resources (e.g., personnel, information, monetary, and organizational) used by the public health system to provide the capacity to perform its duties.

An approach to health that aims to improve the health of the entire population and to reduce health inequities among population groups. Population health is fundamental to the field of public health and differentiates it from the field of medicine, which largely focuses on the health of individuals.

A measure of the burden of a health condition in a population; generally the number or proportion of cases of the health condition at a specified time point or period. Prevalence is affected by both the incidence and the duration of the health condition in a population.

Anticipatory action taken to prevent the occurrence of an adverse health event or to minimize its effects after it has occurred. Prevention is fundamental to the field of public health and differentiates it from the field of medicine, which largely focuses on treatment.

To fulfill society's interest in assuring conditions in which people can be health Public Health carries out its mission through organized, interdisciplinary efforts that address the physical, mental and environmental health concerns of communities and populations.

Race and ethnicity are social, not biological constructs, referring to social groups, often sharing cultural heritage and ancestry. Race and ethnicity are not valid biological or genetic categories.

Persistent differences in health indicators by race and ethnicity across multiple categories (chronic disease, communicable disease, intentional and unintentional injuries and maternal and child health indicators).

A mathematical expression for the relation between the numerator (number of deaths, diseases, disabilities, services, etc.) and denominator (population at risk), together with specifications of time. Rates make possible a comparison of the number of health conditions between populations and at different times.

Many people understand causes of health problems to be things such as viruses and individual behaviors. While these are undeniable causes, what can explain why some groups of people have higher rates of viruses (like HIV) or unhealthy behaviors (like smoking) than others? Root causes are primary causes of health problems that underlie the more obvious causes (literally visualize the roots of a plant beneath the soil). Social problems are often root causes that result in health inequalities through complex pathways. For example, racism is a root cause because it causes things like income inequality, lack of power, residential and occupational segregation, and stress in marginalized groups. These things in turn cause things like inadequate health care, working in dangerous environments, living in cramped conditions where infections spread easily, smoking, and the inability to afford nutritious food. These things, in turn, are related to a host of health problems like injury, infectious and chronic disease, and mental illness. While addressing root causes will not eliminate disease and death, it will reduce health disparities between populations.

When quantitative differences found between populations are labeled as statistically significant, it means the differences are considered highly likely to be real and are not due to mere coincidence (random error). For example, if the diabetes rate for Hispanics is higher than the rate for other racial/ethnic groups and those differences are statistically significant, it means the rates probably reflect true disparities between groups.

A system for collection, analysis, interpretation and dissemination of health data on an ongoing basis.

The process of improving the capacity of the public health system to work with many sectors to improve the health status of all people in a community.


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