How Does Population Health Differ from Public Health?

Executive Summary

Population and public health both deal with the well-being of entire communities or groups of people rather than at an individual clinical level. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, the approaches differ in the methods and lens used to address or promote health. This article highlights these distinctions, provides some examples of more in-depth reading and provides some methods and tools to measure achievements in these areas.

  • Introduction
  • Population Health
  • Public Health
  • Analytics in Population & Public Health


We are interested in generating some discussion on this topic in our Population & Public Health Community. Please visit this space to join the conversation.



Population and public health both deal with the patterns of health and illness in groups of people, rather than in individuals. The terms are often used interchangeably since both disciplines monitor health trends and examine the determinants of health and they also propose interventions at the population level to protect and promote health; and provide options for delivering these interventions. There are however, some distinctions that are the subject of this article. 

Population Health

Kindig and Stoddart (2003), define population health as “an approach [that] focuses on 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.” Population health has a focus on the health of the entire population or a select sub-population. It has an emphasis on the societal structures, attitudes, and behaviours which influence health. The goal of population health is to improve health and reduce health inequities between populations. The differences in health status between groups are examined using the social determinants of health to see the potential causes. The social determinants of health from a Canadian perspective, are demonstrated in further detail here. To diminish inequities and improve the health of populations, population health designs interventions using system level approaches. It acts as a basis for allocating health resources to health protection and promotion efforts before illness prevention and treatment are necessary. A population health approach tackles health issues in a broad context.

Public Health

Public health can be defined as what “we as a society do collectively to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy” (Institute of Medicine, 1988). Examples of interventions include policy interventions and programs (e.g., smoking cessation and immunization campaigns). Public health is concerned with the health of a community as a whole. It prevents disease and protects the health of communities through organized efforts to keep people healthy and prevent injury, illness, and premature death. The efforts are undertaken through a combination of programs, services, and policies that protect and promote the health of whole communities. The size of the interventions can vary based on the size of the group being targeted. Public health interventions focus on the direct prevention of disease.

Analytics in Population & Public Health

Measurement is an important aspect of evaluation in health care settings especially with respect to concepts such as return on investment. Metrics in population and public health should be linked to a larger organizational strategy where possible so that there are clear lines of accountability for performance. Tools such as the Balanced Scorecard can be useful in this regard. Possible sources of information to assist organizations with indicator development and use include the AHRQ QI database, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) Indicator Library and the NHS Clinical Services Quality Measures (CSQMs)A Population Health Guide for Primary Care Models offers suggestions and resources on measuring the impact of efforts from both a cost and a quality perspective in primary care. The Life Expectancy Calculator is a useful analytic tool at an individual patient level but also has broader application for examining population subsets. The Statistical Tool Syntax Locator is helpful for those tasked with analyzing population and public health data sets in terms of deciding which programs and corresponding analysis are appropriate. Episheet is a downloadable Excel spreadsheet used for analyzing epidemiologic data. While specific to geographic boundaries in Ontario public health units, the Easy Map visualization Excel tool may be adaptable to other contexts.

Need more information? Have some resources to share? Please visit the Population & Public Health Community of Practice and ask a question in the discussion space and/or upload files to share with your colleagues.