Frequently asked questions

What is public health?

Public health involves the organized efforts of society to keep people healthy and prevent injury, illness and premature death. It is a combination of programs, services and policies that protect and promote the health of all Canadians. Public health includes activities like immunization, healthy eating and physical activity programs, infection control measures in hospitals, along with the detection, lab testing and regulation that support these activities. By helping keep Canadians healthy, public health can relieve some of the pressure on the health-care system.

What is the difference between public health and health care / the public health-care system?

Health care, sometimes referred to as the public health-care system, focuses mainly on treating individuals, while public health targets entire populations to keep people from becoming sick or getting sicker. Both work to limit the impacts of disease and disability.

Who delivers public health services?

The public health system, like the health-care system, involves doctors, nurses and a wide range of health professionals. But it involves many more people too, including:

  • Provincial and territorial chief medical officers of health
  • Local chief public health officers / chief medical officers of health
  • Community leaders
  • Teachers and school principals
  • Families
  • Employers
  • Aboriginal communities
  • Multicultural communities
  • Social and health organizations
  • Sports and recreation clubs
Why was the Agency created?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (the Agency) was created in 2004 in response to growing concerns about the capacity of Canada's public health system to anticipate and respond effectively to public health threats. The Agency's creation was the result of wide consultation with the provinces, territories, stakeholders and Canadians. The Agency's creation also followed recommendations from leading public health experts ― including Dr. David Naylor's report, Learning from SARS: Renewal of Public Health in Canada, as well as other Canadian and international reports ― for clear federal leadership on issues concerning public health and improved collaboration within and between jurisdictions. The Agency is one of five departments and agencies that make up the Government of Canada’s Health Portfolio.

The Agency provides a clear focal point for federal leadership and accountability in managing public health emergencies.

How does the work of the Agency differ from the work of Health Canada?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is part of Canada’s Health Portfolio, which includes Health Canada, and the two organizations collaborate closely. The Health Portfolio is headed by the Minister of Health. PHAC focuses on promoting good health, preventing and controlling infectious and chronic disease and injury, and emergency preparedness and response, with support from a collaborative, Canada-wide network, called the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network.

Health Canada is working toward tangible results for Canadians in terms of:

  • Strengthening the knowledge base to address health and health-care priorities;
  • Providing access to safe and effective health products and food information for healthy choices (e.g., Canada’s Food Guide);
  • Reducing health and environmental risk from products and substances;
  • Fostering safer living and working environments; and
  • Achieving better health outcomes and reduction of health inequalities between First Nations and Inuit and other Canadians.
How does the work of the Agency differ from the work of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is part of Canada’s Health Portfolio, while the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is part of the Government of Canada’s Agriculture Portfolio. However, since both organizations contribute to the health and well-being of Canadians, the two Agencies collaborate closely in a number of areas.

Generally speaking, PHAC focuses on human health — promoting good health, preventing and controlling infectious and chronic disease and injury, and emergency preparedness and response, with support from a collaborative, Canada-wide network, called the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network.

The CFIA works from the farm gate to the consumer’s plate to protect public health. The Agency safeguards not just the food supply, but also the plants and animals upon which safe and high-quality food depends.

The CFIA works with PHAC, Health Canada and other public health authorities at the provincial, territorial and municipal levels to monitor and analyze food-related outbreaks and potential hazards in the food supply, and to prevent the transmission of zoonotic animal diseases to humans. When a food-related outbreak occurs that involves more than one province or territory, PHAC may provide coordinated support by collecting and sharing data nationally, or giving health advice to people handling the food in question.

PHAC researchers also study the transmission of zoonotic diseases, (e.g., variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, the human form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or "Mad Cow Disease”). In fact, the two Agencies have co-located laboratories in Winnipeg within the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (PHAC with the National Microbiology Laboratory; the CFIA with the National Centre for Foreign Animal Diseases).

Does the Agency parallel the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDCs)?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is very similar to the U.S. government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Both organizations serve as clear focal points for leadership and accountability on national public health matters and address similar public health concerns. PHAC collaborates with the CDC as well as with similar organizations around the world to improve not only the public health of people living in Canada, but also that of people around the world.

Where is the Agency headquartered?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has two main locations: one in Ottawa and one in Winnipeg, which is also home to the National Microbiology Laboratory. PHAC also has staff and expertise in six regions across Canada:

  • Atlantic
  • Quebec
  • Ontario & Nunavut
  • Manitoba & Saskatchewan
  • Alberta & Northwest Territories
  • British Columbia and Yukon
How many employees work for the Agency?

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) currently employs about 2,400 staff across Canada, who work in a wide range of operational, scientific, technical and administrative positions.

How does the Agency report to the Canadian public on its progress?

Like all federal departments and agencies, the Public Health Agency of Canada is required to prepare an annual Departmental Peformance Report. These reports are the primary instruments of accountability to Parliament and Canadians, are measured against the expected results outlined in each department or agency’s annual Report on Plans and Priorities, and are usually tabled in Parliament in the fall.

What is the role of the Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO)?

The CPHO's role is to:

  • Provide advice to the Minister of Health and President of the Agency and, as appropriate, work with other federal departments and agencies, provincial/territorial and municipal governments, the international community, the public health community and Canadians on public health issues.
  • Be the federal government spokesperson on public health issues, in particular, during public health emergencies.
  • Play a leadership role in national public health matters and citizen engagement in public health.
How is the Agency advancing public health knowledge?

The Public Health Agency of Canada provides evidence-based and expertise-based knowledge and tools to improve Canada’s public health system.  Working with federal, provincial/territorial and other partners, the Agency develops and implements mechanisms and best practices for public health experts and strives to build consensus on common agreements for information-sharing and for issues of mutual interest across jurisdictions.

Some examples of how the Agency develops public health knowledge include:

  • Promoting the use of knowledge and evidence by public health practitioners through six National Collaborating Centres for Public Health, each of which focuses on a specific area of importance to public health: Aboriginal public health, environmental health, determinants of health, infectious diseases, healthy public policy, methods and tools;
  • Supporting the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network, so that experts can share knowledge, information and best practices in public health;
  • Strengthening Canada’s public health workforce through initiatives like the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program and the Canadian Public Health Service;
  • Strengthening public health practice through the development and promotion of core competencies and accessible continuing education in collaboration with its partners;
  • Working with key suppliers of data such as Statistics Canada and Canadian Institutes for Health Research;
  • Developing tools and supporting integrated public health surveillance systems, so regions across Canada can identify and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and Listeriosis; and
  • Publishing the Chief Public Health Officer’s Annual Report on the State of Public Health in Canada.
What does the Agency do in terms of surveillance of diseases and outbreaks?

The Agency conducts surveillance within the following two major categories:

  • Infectious diseases; and
  • Chronic diseases and health conditions.

Within these two categories, the Agency has developed programs and corresponding systems in a variety of disease areas, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Behavioural and environmental risk factors (such as smoking and obesity);
  • Blood-borne infections;
  • Enteric, food-borne, and water-borne diseases;
  • Sexually transmitted infections;
  • Influenza and respiratory viruses;
  • Tuberculosis;
  • Diabetes;
  • Cancer; and
  • Cardiovascular diseases.
What are the advantages of having a public health agency?

Having a public health agency:

  • Provides for strengthened public health leadership in Canada in both times of crisis and in addressing the factors that lead to illness and injury in Canada; and
  • Concentrates, within one agency, many of the resources working to address the factors that lead to illness and injury in Canadians, making the Public Health Agency of Canada a focal point to lead efforts in the advancement of public health in Canada and around the world.

Having a Chief Public Health Officer (CPHO) ensures there is clear federal leadership in the event of a public health emergency that spans more than one province or territory. The CPHO also provides advice on public health issues directly to the Minister of Health and the President of the Agency.

The Public Health Agency of Canada leads the federal government's work on promoting health, preventing chronic disease and injury, combatting infectious diseases, and preparing for and responding to human health disasters and emergencies. The Agency engages in activities that range from research on antivirals and vaccines to pandemic planning, and from building international public health networks and engaging in international health security exercises to sharing information and knowledge with its many partners at all levels of government within Canada.

How do federal, provincial/territorial and municipal governments share responsibility for public health?

When it comes to public health in Canada, different levels of government are responsible for different aspects; however, all three levels of government collaborate to improve public health for all Canadians.

One of the key ways that federal, provincial and territorial governments share responsibility for public health is by collaborating to address public health issues and challenges. They do this through the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network (PHN). The PHN is made up of federal, provincial and territorial public health leaders and select public health partners (e.g., the Canadian Public Health Association) and meets regularly to share knowledge, expertise and best practices on public health, and develop and implement efficient and collaborative approaches. One of PHN’s priorities is to determine the indicators needed to measure, monitor and report on the health disparities that exist among Canadians in order to track progress and make adjustments needed to improve results.

Municipal governments also play a role in public health. One example of how different levels of government share responsibility for public health is how they interact in the event of public health emergencies:

  • Municipal governments have primary responsibility for responding to public health emergencies in their jurisdictions.
  • If a public health emergency grows beyond a municipality ― either in terms of the municipality’s boundaries or its ability to deal with the emergency, then the provincial or territorial governments may be asked to step in and provide assistance.
  • If a public health emergency grows beyond one province and/or territory ― again, either its boundary or capacity, the Public Health Agency of Canada usually gets involved — often playing a coordinating role. This can also include lending its lab capacity, contributing from emergency medical and equipment stockpiles and response teams, and connecting with the World Health Organization and other countries.

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