A glaring spotlight has been placed on public health ever since COVID-19 erupted across the globe. As the world tries to navigate its way through the pandemic, we find ourself turning to governments and experts for advice. Should we stay at home? When should we visit the doctor? Are we allowed to meet our loved ones face-to-face? In times like this, it’s easy to think of public health issues as stuff that only organisations, experts and powerful people can solve. What can an individual do to improve public health anyway?
The answer: a lot. What we’ve learned from COVID-19 is how much good (or harm) one person can do. You can mask up. Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Tell others to do the same. All these efforts go a long way. The most important lesson of all is to realise that public health matters not just during wartime (see: COVID-19), but during peacetime too.
In this article, we explore two things. First, we touch on what public health is all about. Second, we go through seven super-simple steps you can take as an individual to further public health.
What is public health?
Simply put, public health is related to anything concerned with the health of the public. According to the CDC,
Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities. This work is achieved by promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing and responding to infectious diseases.
Unlike clinical professionals who focus on treating the sick or injured, public health focuses on preventing people from falling sick in the first place.
With that in mind, what can someone with zero background in healthcare do to improve public health? Here are seven super simple steps to get started.
1. Stay healthy.
Exercise. Eat nutritious food. Spend time with your loved ones. By taking care of yourself, you inspire others to do the same. And by keeping healthy, you also lower your chances of falling ill and spreading diseases. The bonus? You look good and feel good.
2. Get vaccinated.
Vaccines have been said to be the most important public health invention in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, there has been rising misinformation and declining trust in vaccines in certain parts of the world. That has caused anti-vaccine sentiments to brew in recent years.
But all that misinformation is simply that: untrue. Vaccines have prevented at least 10 million deaths from 2010-2015 AND protected millions more from severely debilitating diseases such as polio, measles, and pneumonia.1 It is thanks to vaccines that we can enjoy healthy lives free of some of the worst infectious diseases on the planet. 2
When you vaccinate, you protect both yourself and those around you. Check with your doctor to see if you’re due for the annual flu shot. Also, depending on your age or health condition, you may be due for vaccines that can prevent life-threatening conditions such as pneumococcal pneumonia.3
Travelling to a new country? There may be specific vaccines you require depending on your destination country. Some of them include those for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Tetanus and Yellow fever. Vaccinating before travel helps protect yourself and the local population in your destination country. This site offers advice for safeguarding your health during travel.
Once you’re vaccinated, you lower your chances of getting the disease AND THEN spreading it to someone else. It’s one of the simplest ways to protect yourself and others from falling sick.
3. Wash your hands properly.
It can’t get simpler than this. Everyone is tired of hearing this age-old mantra (since 1847 I might add),4 but when it comes to saving lives, sometimes simplicity is key. We exchange germs all the time- from the surfaces we touch or the hands we shake. Unfortunately for us, the science shows that we seem to be obsessed with touching our own faces. When we touch our faces, disease-causing germs can enter our bodies through our eyes, nose or mouths. We can fall sick this way.
In short, wash your hands, everybody. Maintaining personal hygiene is by far, the cheapest and most effective way to prevent infection and infecting others. It’s also the most boring way. But that’s what makes it so beautifully simple. 5
4. Become an organ donor
For individuals whose organs have failed, an organ transplant is usually their only hope for recovery. However, they have to put on a waiting list.6 This means that they can only undergo an organ transplant when an organ match is available. For them, a donated organ easily becomes a gift of life. By becoming a registered donor, you are not only increasing the chances of treatment, but also offering someone the gift of hope and life. As a registered donor in Singapore, the kidneys, liver, heart and corneas, can be donated in the event of death for transplantation. 7
According to the American Transplant Foundation, 8
One deceased donor can save up to eight lives through organ donation and can save and enhance more than 100 lives through the lifesaving and healing gift of tissue donation. Organs that can be donated after death are the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas and small intestines. Tissues include corneas, skin, veins, heart valves, tendons, ligaments and bones.
Donations are usually made in the event of your death. However, you don’t have to wait until death to become a donor. A healthy person can become a ‘living donor’ by donating a kidney, or a part of the liver, lung, intestine, blood or bone marrow.
Are you a registered organ donor? If you’re not, consider becoming one. It is one of the easiest ways (and most rewarding ways) to contribute to public health.
5. Volunteer with or donate to public health promotion programmes.
Many find volunteering for health programmes extremely rewarding. What better way to do something you enjoy, while doing good at the same time? Love kids? Volunteer at the local children’s hospital. Enjoy performing? Play some songs and spread joy at the nearby hospice. Feel strongly about patient advocacy and dispelling stigma? Become an advocate for an HIV/AIDS non-profit.
If you’re interested in global health, you can also consider volunteering or even working with international health organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), The International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corps, Oxfam or Partners in Health. And if volunteering isn’t for you, consider donating to these organisations instead. Any amount goes a long way. There’s something out there for everyone. And volunteering or donating are some of the best ways to make a positive impact on public health, at scale.
6. Get educated.
There are many ways to learn about public health. A fun way is to read public health comics to learn about the experiences of patients and healthcare professionals. Some great places to start are My Degeneration: A Journey Through Parkinson’s (Graphic Medicine) and Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371
There are also plenty of YouTube channels creating quality, engaging and beautiful videos about public health. Here’s a fantastic video that takes you through the science to address the controversies surrounding milk and whether it is truly healthy for us.
Here’s another great one that explores what happens to your body when you’re sitting all day. It’s a short but comprehensive clip on the hidden risks of sitting- and why it could be the new smoking.
7. Share evidence-based news.
Some have termed all the health misinformation going around an “infodemic”.9 Health misinformation should be taken seriously because the wrong advice can literally kill you.10 We have seen how COVID-19 misinformation about unproven use of certain medications like hydroxychloroquine or alcohol has caused poisoning or even death among uninformed users.
Think about the last time you shared an article with your friends and family. You probably shared it with good intention- to encourage them to take certain advice or make a lifestyle change. However, before you hit ‘send’, did you check whether the article was reliable or not?
To care for our own health as well as the health of others, we need to learn to differentiate between what is scientifically-accurate information- and what is not. And then share only what is correct.
How do you do that? The easiest way is to share information from trusted sources.
- For the latest evidence-based news on global health occurrences, the World Health Organization and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention are your best bet.
- University websites are usually a good choice. Simply type in your health query followed by the university name. Some reliable ones include Harvard Health Blog, Johns Hopkins Medicine
- For Singaporeans, the Ministry of Health is the go-to source for the latest health-related updates in the country, while HealthHub is a great repository of information for health articles, the latest health events and a useful directory for health services across the country.
- When it comes to YouTube videos, try to share only those From channels that produce content based on sound research. Some include TED-Ed and Kurzgesagt.
1. Go to the doctor regularly
Generally, if you’re in good health, there should be no need for you to visit the doctor regularly. However, depending on your age, family history of disease and lifestyle, you may need to visit the doctor for annual health screening. Health screenings can help detect if you have a particular condition even if you do not experience any signs or symptoms.
Some common examples of health screenings include those for diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and high blood pressure. You might then be able to get started on treatment and control of your condition earlier. Speak to your doctor to find out more about the types of screening you may require.
2. Eating vitamins
When it comes to improving one’s general health, are multivitamin and mineral supplements really beneficial? This is yet another common misconception. Studies have shown that vitamins have little to no effect on those who are generally healthy.
However, for people with certain health conditions, doctors may recommend them to take certain vitamins to fill their nutritional gaps. Some conditions include anaemia, neuropathy and osteoporosis 11
Do seek your doctor’s advice to check whether your vitamins are necessary. You may end up doing your wallet a favour.
And that’s a wrap! In this article, we first touched briefly on what public health is all about. Second, we highlighted seven super-simple steps you can take as an individual to further public health. And they are:
- Stay healthy.
- Get vaccinated.
- Wash your hands.
- Become and organ donor.
- Volunteer with a public health promotion campaign.
- Get educated.
- Share evidence-based news.
- Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. 2018. “2018 Assessment Report of the Global Vaccine Action Plan.” Switzerland: Geneva: World Health Organization. ↩︎
- World Economic Forum. 2018. “Over Half of Vaccines Are Wasted Globally for These Simple Reasons.” World Economic Forum. July 24, 2018. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/07/the-biggest-hurdle-to-universal-vaccination-might-just-be-a-fridge/. ↩︎
- A potentially fatal bacteria infection in the lungs. ↩︎
- On Washing Hands by Atul Gawande ↩︎
- On Washing Hands by Atul Gawande↩︎
- https://www.liveon.gov.sg/support-organ-donation.html ↩︎
- https://www.gov.sg/article/what-is-hota-all-about ↩︎
- https://www.americantransplantfoundation.org/about-transplant/facts-and-myths/ ↩︎
- 9 Reliable Resources for Information About Coronavirus https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/coronavirus-resources-for-reliable-information/ ↩︎
- Coronavirus: The human cost of virus misinformation https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-52731624 ↩︎
- Ward, E. Addressing nutritional gaps with multivitamin and mineral supplements. Nutr J 13, 72 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-72 ↩︎