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The Future of the Public’s Health in the 21st Century
addressing population health problems. This approach identifies key determinants of the nation’s health and presents evidence for their consideration in developing effective national strategies to assure population health and support the development of a public health system that blends the strengths and resources of diverse sectors and partners (IOM, 1997).
A POPULATION PERSPECTIVE
For nations to improve the health of their populations, some have cogently argued, they need to move beyond clinical interventions with high-risk groups. This concept was best articulated by Rose (1992), who noted that “medical thinking has been largely concerned with the needs of sick individuals.” Although this reflects an important mission for medicine and health care, it is a limited one that does little to prevent people from becoming sick in the first place, and it typically has disregarded issues related to disparities in access to and quality of preventive and treatment services. Personal health care is only one, and perhaps the least powerful, of several types of determinants of health, among which are also included genetic, behavioral, social, and environmental factors (IOM, 2000; McGinnis et al., 2002). To modify these, the nation and the intersectoral public health system must identify and exploit the full potential of new options and strategies for health policy and action.
Three realities are central to the development of effective population-based prevention strategies. First, disease risk is currently conceived of as a continuum rather than a dichotomy. There is no clear division between risk for disease and no risk for disease with regard to levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, alcohol consumption, tobacco consumption, physical activity, diet and weight, lead exposure, and other risk factors. In fact, recommended cutoff points for management or treatment of many of these risk factors have changed dramatically and in a downward direction over time (e.g., guidelines for control of “hypertension” and cholesterol), in acknowledgment of the increased risk associated with common moderately elevated levels of a given risk factor. This continuum of risk is also apparent for many social and environmental conditions as well (e.g., socioeconomic status, social isolation, work stress, and environmental exposures). Any population model of prevention should be built on the recognition that there are degrees of risk rather than just two extremes of exposure (i.e., risk and no risk).
The second reality is that most often only a small percentage of any population is at the extremes of high or low risk. The majority of people fall in the middle of the distribution of risk. Rose (1981, 1992) observed that exposure of a large number of people to a small risk can yield a more absolute number of cases of a condition than exposure of a small number of people to a high risk. This relationship argues for the development of