Glossary of Terms



Advocacy: Interventions such as speaking, writing or acting in favour of a particular issue or cause, policy or group of people. In the public health field, advocacy is assumed to be in the public interest, whereas lobbying by a special interest group may or may not be in the public interest. Advocacy often aims to enhance the health of disadvantaged groups such as First Nations communities, people living in poverty or persons with HIV/AIDS.

Analysis: The examination and evaluation of relevant information in order to select the best course of action from among various alternatives. In public health, this requires the integration of information from a variety of sources.

Assessment: A formal method of evaluating a system or a process, often with both qualitative and quantitative components.

Attitude: A relatively stable belief or feeling about a concept, person or object. Attitudes can often be inferred by observing behaviours. Related to definition of values.


Collaboration: A recognized relationship among different sectors or groups, which have been formed to take action on an issue in a way that is more effective or sustainable than might be achieved by the public health sector acting alone.

Communication skills: These are the skills required by public health professionals to transmit and receive ideas and information to and from involved individuals and groups. Communication skills include the ability to listen, and to speak and write in plain language; i.e., verbal skills, often reinforced with visual images.

Community participation: Procedures whereby members of a community participate directly in decision-making about developments that affect the community. It covers a spectrum of activities ranging from passive involvement in community life to intensive action-oriented participation in community development (including political initiatives and strategies). The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion emphasizes the importance of concrete and effective community action in setting priorities for health, making decisions, planning strategies and implementing them to achieve better health.

Consultant/specialist: Consultants/specialists are public health staff who are likely to have advanced preparation in a special content area or a specific set of skills. They provide expert advice and support to front line providers and managers although they may also work directly with clients. Examples of consultants/specialists include epidemiologists, community medicine specialists, environmental health scientists, evaluators, nurse practitioners and advanced practice nurses.

Core competencies for public health: Core competencies are the essential knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for the practice of public health. They transcend the boundaries of specific disciplines and are independent of program and topic. They provide the building blocks for effective public health practice, and the use of an overall public health approach.

Culturally-relevant (and appropriate): Recognizing, understanding and applying attitudes and practices that are sensitive to and appropriate for people with diverse cultural socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and persons of all ages, genders, health status, sexual orientations and abilities.


Data: A set of facts; one source of information.

Determinants of health: Definable entities that cause, are associated with, or induce health outcomes. Public health is fundamentally concerned with action and advocacy to address the full range of potentially modifiable determinants of health – not only those which are related to the actions of individuals, such as health behaviours and lifestyles, but also factors such as income and social status, education, employment and working conditions, access to appropriate health services, and the physical environment. These, determinants of health, in combination, create different living conditions which impact on health.

Disease and injury prevention: Measures to prevent the occurrence of disease and injury, such as risk factor reduction, but also to arrest the progress and reduce the consequences of disease or injury once established. Disease and injury prevention is sometimes used as a complementary term alongside health promotion. (A public health system core function.)

Diversity: The demographic characteristic of populations attributable to perceptible ethnic, linguistic, cultural, visible or social variation among groups of individuals in the general population.


Empowerment: A process through which people gain greater control over decisions and actions affecting their health. Empowerment may be a social, cultural, psychological or political process through which individuals and social groups are able to express their needs, present their concerns, devise strategies for involvement in decision-making, and achieve political, social and cultural action to meet those needs. (See definition health promotion.)

Equity/equitable: Equity means fairness. Equity in health means that peoples’ needs guide the distribution of opportunities for well-being. Equity in health is not the same as equality in health status. Inequalities in health status between individuals and populations are inevitable consequences of genetic differences and various social and economic conditions, or a result of personal lifestyle choices. Inequities occur as a consequence of differences in opportunity, which result, for example in unequal access to health services, nutritious food or adequate housing. In such cases, inequalities in health status arise as a consequence of inequities in opportunities in life.

Ethics: The branch of philosophy dealing with distinctions between right and wrong, and with the moral consequences of human actions. Much of modern ethical thinking is based on the concepts of human rights, individual freedom and autonomy, and on doing good and not harming. The concept of equity, or equal consideration for every individual, is paramount. In public health, the community need for protection from risks to health may take precedence over individual human rights, for instance when persons with a contagious disease are isolated and their contacts may be subject to quarantine. Finding a balance between the public health requirement for access to information and the individual’s right to privacy and to confidentiality of personal information may also be a source of tension.

Evaluation: Efforts aimed at determining as systematically and objectively as possible the effectiveness and impact of health-related (and other) activities in relation to objectives, taking into account the resources that have been used.

Evidence: Information such as analyzed data, published research findings, results of evaluations, prior experience, expert opinions, any or all of which may be used to reach conclusions on which decisions are based.


Front line provider: Public health staff who have post-secondary education and experience in the field of public health. Front line providers have sufficient relevant experience to work independently, with minimal supervision. Front line providers carry out the bulk of day-to-day tasks in the public health sector. They work directly with clients, including individuals, families, groups and communities. Responsibilities may include information collection and analysis, fieldwork, program planning, outreach activities, program and service delivery, and other organizational tasks. Examples of front line providers are public health nurses, public health/environmental health inspectors, public health dietitians, dental hygienists and health promoters.


(Health) planning: A set of practices and procedures that are intended to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of health services and to improve health outcomes. This important activity of all health departments commonly includes short-term, medium-term, and long-range planning. Important considerations are resource allocation, priority setting, distribution of staff and physical facilities, planning for emergencies and ways to cope with extremes of demand and unforeseen contingencies, and preparation of budgets for future fiscal periods with a feasible time horizon, often 5 years ahead, sometimes as far ahead as 10 or even 15 years.

Health policy: A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, political party, organization, or individual; the written or unwritten aims, objectives, targets, strategy, tactics, and plans that guide the actions of a government or an organization. Policies have three interconnected and ideally continually evolving stages: development, implementation and evaluation. Policy development is the creative process of identifying and establishing a policy to meet a particular need or situation. Policy implementation consists of the actions taken to set up or modify a policy, and evaluation is the assessment of how, and how well, the policy works in practice. Health policy is often enacted through legislation or other forms of rule-making, which define regulations and incentives that enable the provision of and access to health and social services.

Health program: A description or plan of action for an event or sequence of actions or events over a period that may be short or prolonged. More formally, an outline of the way a system or service will function, with specifics such as roles and responsibilities, expected expenditures, outcomes, etc. A health program is generally long term and often multifaceted, whereas a health project is a short-term and usually narrowly focused activity.

Health promotion: The process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve their health. It not only embraces actions directed at strengthening the skills and capabilities of individuals, but also action directed towards changing social, environmental, political and economic conditions so as to alleviate their impact on public and individual health. The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (PDF Document) describes five key strategies for health promotion: build healthy public policy; create supportive environments; strengthen community action; develop personal skills; and re-orient health services. (A public health system core function.)

Health protection: A term to describe important activities of public health, in food hygiene, water purification, environmental sanitation, drug safety and other activities, that eliminate as far as possible the risk of adverse consequences to health attributable to environmental hazards. (A public health system core function.)


Information: Facts, ideas, concepts and data that have been recorded, analyzed, and organized in a way that facilitates interpretation and subsequent action.

Investigation: A systematic, thorough and formal process of inquiry or examination used to gather facts and information in order to understand, define and resolve a public health issue.


Leadership: Leadership is described in many ways. In the field of public health it relates to the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of their community and/or the organization in which they work. It involves inspiring people to craft and achieve a vision and goals. Leaders provide mentoring, coaching and recognition. They encourage empowerment, allowing other leaders to emerge.

Lifelong learning: A broad concept where education that is flexible, diverse and available at different times and places is pursued throughout life. It takes place at all levels—formal, non-formal and informal—utilizing various modalities such as distance learning and conventional learning.


Manager/supervisor: Public health staff who are responsible for major programs or functions. Typically, they have staff who report to them. Sometimes senior managers come from sectors other than public health and therefore rely heavily on consultants/specialists and other public health professionals for content expertise and advice. In other situations, managers with public health experience and qualifications are expected to bring more content knowledge.

Mediate: A process through which the different interests (personal, social, economic) of individuals and communities, and different sectors (public and private) are reconciled in ways that promote and protect health. Facilitating change in peoples’ lifestyles and living conditions inevitably produces conflicts between the different sectors and interests in a population. Reconciling such conflicts in ways that promote health may require considerable input from public health practitioners, including the application of skills in advocacy for health.

Mission: The purpose for which an organization, agency or service exists, often summarized in a mission statement.


Partnerships: Collaboration between individuals, groups, organizations, governments or sectors for the purpose of joint action to achieve a common goal. The concept of partnership implies that there is an informal understanding or a more formal agreement (possibly legally binding) among the parties regarding roles and responsibilities, as well as the nature of the goal and how it will be pursued.

Performance standards: The criteria, often determined in advance, e.g., by an expert committee, by which the activities of health professionals or the organization in which they work, are assessed.

Population health assessment: Population health assessment entails understanding the health of populations and the factors that underlie health and health risks. This is frequently manifested through community health profiles and health status reports that inform priority setting and program planning, delivery and evaluation. Assessment includes consideration of physical, biological, behavioural, social, cultural, economic and other factors that affect health. The health of the population or a specified subset of the population can be measured by health status indicators such as life expectancy and hospital admission rates. (A public health system core function.)

Public health: An organized activity of society to promote, protect, improve, and when necessary, restore the health of individuals, specified groups, or the entire population. It is a combination of sciences, skills, and values that function through collective societal activities and involve programs, services, and institutions aimed at protecting and improving the health of all people. The term “public health” can describe a concept, a social institution, a set of scientific and professional disciplines and technologies, and a form of practice. It is a way of thinking, a set of disciplines, an institution of society, and a manner of practice. It has an increasing number and variety of specialized domains and demands of its practitioners an increasing array of skills and expertise.

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC): Established in 2004, the Public Health Agency of Canada aims to protect and promote the health and safety of all Canadians. Its activities focus on preventing chronic diseases and injuries, health promotion, and responding to public health emergencies and infectious disease outbreaks.

Public health practitioner: Syn: public health professional, public health worker. A generic term for any person who works in a public health service or setting. They may be classified according to profession (nurse, physician, dietitian, etc.); according to role and function (direct contact with members of the public or not); whether their role is hands-on active interventions or administrative; or in various other ways.

Public health sciences: A collective name for the scholarly activities that form the scientific base for public health practice, services, and systems. Until the early 19th century, scholarly activities were limited to natural and biological sciences sometimes enlightened by empirical logic. The scientific base has broadened to include vital statistics, epidemiology, environmental sciences, biostatistics, microbiology, social and behavioral sciences, demography, genetics, nutrition, molecular biology, and more.


Research: Activities designed to develop or contribute to knowledge, e.g., theories, principles, relationships, or the information on which these are based. Research may be conducted simply by observation and inference, or by the use of experiment, in which the researcher alters or manipulates conditions in order to observe and study the consequences of doing so. In public health, there is an ill-defined distinction between research and routine surveillance, case finding, etc. Qualitative research aims to do in-depth exploration of a group or issue, and the methods used often include focus groups, interviews, life histories, etc.


Social justice: Refers to the concept of a society that gives individuals and groups fair treatment and an equitable share of the benefits of society. In this context, social justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equity. Under social justice, all groups and individuals are entitled equally to important rights such as health protection and minimal standards of income. The goal of public health—to minimize preventable death and disability for all — is integral to social justice.

Social marketing: The design and implementation of health communication strategies intended to influence behaviour or beliefs relating to the acceptability of an idea such as desired health behaviour, or a practice such as safe food hygiene, by a target group in the population.

Surveillance: Systematic, ongoing collection, collation, and analysis of health-related information that is communicated in a timely manner to all who need to know which health problems require action in their community. Surveillance is a central feature of epidemiological practice, where it is used to control disease. Information that is used for surveillance comes from many sources, including reported cases of communicable diseases, hospital admissions, laboratory reports, cancer registries, population surveys, reports of absence from school or work, and reported causes of death. (A public health system core function.)

Sustainable development: The use of resources, investments, technology and institutional development in ways that do not compromise the health and well-being of future generations. There is no single best way of organizing the complex development-environment-health relationship that reveals all the important interactions and possible entry points for public health interventions.


Values: The beliefs, traditions and social customs held dear and honoured by individuals and collective society. Moral values are deeply believed, change little over time and are often grounded in religious faith. They include beliefs about the sanctity of life, the role of families in society, and protection from harm of infants, children and other vulnerable people. Social values are more flexible and may change as individuals undergo experience. These may include beliefs about the status and roles of women in society, attitudes towards use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances. Values can affect behaviour and health either beneficially or harmfully.

Vision: If a strategic plan is the "blueprint" for an organization's work, then the vision is the "artist's rendering" of the achievement of that plan. It is a description in words that conjures up the ideal destination of the group's work together.


Working environment: A setting in which people work. This comprises not merely the physical environment and workplace hazards, but also the social, cultural and psychological setting that may help to induce harmony among workers, or the opposite – tension, friction, distrust and animosity which can interfere with well-being and aggravate risks of injury.

This glossary was compiled by Dr. John M. Last in October 2006 and revised and edited by Peggy Edwards in August 2007 in response to suggestions from the consultation process and changes in the core competency statements. Primary sources include A Dictionary of Public Health by John M. Last (2007) and the Health Promotion Glossary (PDF Document) published by the World Health Organization (1998).

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