VIEW: Why Public Health and Why Now

Alexis Yeboah (she/her) is a truth-teller, knowledge-seeker and rebel who pushes for more honesty. She has a Master’s in Public Health from the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota is known for its healthcare. We have world renowned medical institutions, are home to the first health insurance plan in the country, and have a variety of healthcare options. But Minnesota also ranks among the worst health outcomes for people of color. Being a Black woman who grew up in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, I see and experience this issue almost daily.

When I was younger, I wanted to work in ‘traditional’ medicine, as a nurse or pharmacist, because I wanted to help others. But my relationship to health and medicine changed after I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a sophomore in college.

As a cancer patient, I saw the degree to which health and healthcare is held outside of the patient’s influence. I saw the delicate balance of care provider, health system, and familial history and lifestyle. I felt the stigma of being deemed “sick.”

Being a patient moved me to want to better understand how society, policy, and individual factors influence health, which led me to study public health as a graduate student.

Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of population or a group of people — with the stress on prevention of disease. In contrast, medicine is focused on individuals and treatment.

Public health and medicine are two sides to the same coin, but often don’t work together well in approach, tracking, and overall understanding.

More often than not I have watched medical and public health institutions work together to study Black communities — and how deprivations impact health. Rather than authentically engaging, listening, and working with the community to resolve issues, they simply study it while continuing to perpetuate inequities in health.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) as “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of life-risks and outcomes.”

In other words: access to qualified, culturally competent health providers; education access; protection from neighborhood and police violence are directly related to health.

What I want to see is how community — ripe with ideas and innovations around their health — can be leaders of the conversation.

In this country, despite our medical/industrial complexes, we seem to have a “sick-caresystem — one that is focused on treating the symptoms but not the causes, which often comes down to racism and other social determinants of health.

I advocate for integrative approaches to care and health, allowing people to reclaim sacred health practices that are culturally salient, such as the use of traditional herbs, alongside pharmaceuticals to manage health conditions — public health happens where people live, eat and pray.

I think of self-care as public health — allowing me to rest and try to combat the anxiety and stress I deal with daily from the discrimination I face as a Black woman in America.

I want to do whatever I can to prevent chronic health conditions waiting for me as I age.

That is public health.

With more than 300,000 Americans dead, and over 22 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, it is time for a critical eye on how we teach, engage, and communicate about public health.

There is power in a populace proficient in public health, and right now we have to take every ounce of power we can get. To me, public health is all encompassing. We have to be much more expansive and willing to change our approach to this critical discipline.

Public health is part of everything. It is crucial we start to act like it.