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The Political Face of Public Health


Public health is politically paradoxical because its core conceptual components — the exercise of public authority and the promotion of population health — stand in practical tension that belies their theoretical promise. Across Western nations, public policymakers stand accused of failing properly to honor and support the crucial contributions that public health makes to the improvement of health outcomes and of overinvesting in acute medical care services, the need for which timely interventions in prevention and health promotion might have averted. The dramatic budgetary discrepancies in Western nations between the massive funds devoted to medical care and the minuscule sums allotted to public health are often taken as evidence that in such matters, political leaders are irrational (or perhaps uninformed, or captured by big-moneyed medical interests) and that good public policy would have epidemiologists and other public health experts running, or at least orchestrating, the show.

This paper explores the sources of this tension between population health and political power within the concept of public health and seeks to show why these strains prove to be so durable, indeed irresolvable. The argument and evidence draw largely on the United States, but the supposition — yway, the hope — is that the analysis will also throw light on the politics of public health in other nations.


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Correspondence to Lawrence D. Brown PhD.

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Brown, L.D. The Political Face of Public Health. Public Health Rev 32, 155–173 (2010).

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Key Words

  • Public Health
  • public policy
  • political power
  • health reform