What is the Population Health Approach?

Production of this resource has been made possible through a financial contribution by Health Canada prior to the announcement of the establishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada on September 24, 2004. Any reference to Health Canada should be assumed to be to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The population health approach is positioned in the Public Health Agency of Canada as a unifying force for the entire spectrum of health system interventions -- from prevention and promotion to health protection, diagnosis, treatment and care -- and integrates and balances action between them. The approach is integral to the Department's broader role of improving the health of Canadians.

In January 1997, the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health (ACPH) defined population health as follows: Population health refers to the health of a population as measured by health status indicators and as influenced by social, economic and physical environments, personal health practices, individual capacity and coping skills, human biology, early childhood development, and health services. As an approach, population health focuses on the interrelated conditions and factors that influence the health of populations over the life course, identifies systematic variations in their patterns of occurrence, and applies the resulting knowledge to develop and implement policies and actions to improve the health and well-being of those populations.

-from Toward a Healthy Future, Second Report on the Health of Canadians,

What is Population Health?

Population health is an approach to health that aims to improve the health of the entire population and to reduce health inequities among population groups. In order to reach these objectives, it looks at and acts upon the broad range of factors and conditions that have a strong influence on our health.

See also Focus on the Health of Populations.

Population Health: Defining Health

A population health approach reflects a shift in our thinking about how health is defined. The notion of health as a positive concept, signifying more than the absence of disease, led initially to identifying it as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. However, making health synonymous with well-being, human development and quality of life confused health with its determinants and made it unmeasurable as the outcome of action addressing those determinants. Moreover, it became impossible to talk about the contribution of health to social well-being and quality of life - yet their relationship should be seen as reciprocal and (potentially) mutually reinforcing.

The population health approach recognizes that health is a capacity or resource rather than a state, a definition which corresponds more to the notion of being able to pursue one's goals, to acquire skills and education, and to grow. This broader notion of health recognizes the range of social, economic and physical environmental factors that contribute to health. The best articulation of this concept of health is "the capacity of people to adapt to, respond to, or control life's challenges and changes" (Frankish et al., 1996).

- Health Impact Assessment as a Tool for Population Health Promotion and Public Policy by C.J. Frankish et al., Institute of Health Promotion Research, University of British Columbia, Vancouver: 1996

See also What is health? This question was prepared by the Canadian Council on Social Development.

The Population Health Template: Key Elements and Actions That Define A Population Health Approach (PDF document 599.01 KB - 46 pages) organizes and consolidates current understandings of population health. The template outlines the procedures and processes required to implement a population health approach. It provides guideposts that help to assess preparedness and capacity to implement population health initiatives. Building on advances in health promotion and public health, the Population Health Template is a resource for people in health and other sectors who strive to improve the health of populations.

The Population Health Template can be used by multiple groups for various purposes:

  • Policy makers and program planners can use the template to guide and direct policy and program development so that initiatives reflect population health key elements.
  • The template supports health educators in the development of training curriculum and materials that reinforce and promote population health approaches.
  • The template can offer evaluators a set of criteria for evaluating health-related programs against population health key elements.
  • Grant reviewers and writers can use the template to assess the degree to which funding proposals align with population health concepts.
  • Among researchers and academics, the template can serve as a testing field for population-health related assumptions and hypotheses (and thereby, advance theory), as well as support the development of population health models and instruments.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has identified population health as a key concept and approach for policy and program development aimed at improving the health of Canadians. The concepts and ideas presented in this paper support the Public Health Agency of Canada's initiative to promote a population health approach in Canada. The overarching aim of this paper is to develop and advance our understanding of a population health approach and to spark debate and discussion about the nature of a population health approach and how it can be implemented. Because the paper sets forth the outside parameters of a population health approach, it is detailed and comprehensive. To support operationalization of a population health approach, an application tool, which summarizes the key concepts of this paper,has also been developed.


Population health builds on a long tradition of public health and health promotion. In 1974, the federal government's White Paper, A New Perspect ive on the Health of Canadians (Lalonde Report), proposed that changes in lifestyles or social and physical environments would likely lead to more improvements in health than would be achieved by spending more money on existing health care delivery systems. The Lalonde Report gave rise to a number of highly successful, proactive health promotion programs which increased awareness of the health risks associated with certain personal behaviours and lifestyles (e.g., smoking, alcohol, nutrition, fitness).

More information is available on the history of population health.

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