What is Public Health Research?

July 6th, 2017

Author: Sophie Ratcliff

CATS is now in its 6th year and you may wonder at times,

“Why are they asking me all these questions about what I eat, about what I like to do when I’m not at school and about my friends?”

We are interested in how children change over time. We hope to improve the health of future generations. This all fits into something called public health research.

What is public health research?

You may be familiar with the term medical research which focuses on testing and treating people who are sick. Medical research includes things like the discovery of penicillin in 1928 or the treatment of diabetes with insulin.

In Australia there have been some amazing improvements made due to medical research. These include the development of an artificial heart valve by Victor Chang and the development of antivenins for spider and snake bites by Struan Sutherland.

Public health research has many similarities to medical research. Both types of research are interested in reducing disease and increasing the health of the population through systematic investigation by scientists. Although they are similar, there are some differences.

What is the difference between medical research and public health research?
Unlike medical research, public health research focuses on populations or groups of people. One example of a population would be Australian youth. This may include you or your child who takes part in CATS.

Public health research also focuses on disease prevention and health promotion for the entire community. This means we look at how to prevent disease before it occurs or look at what things make people healthier.

At CATS we are looking at different factors such as diet and exercise, which support good mental and physical health through the period of transition from childhood into adolescence.

Public health research also has links to public policy and education policy. This means that the information we discover about a specific group of people can be used to inform policies by the government.

An example: Asthma research – public health or medical?
Another easy way to think about the difference is to think about the example of asthma. Medical research is used to develop tests for asthma, as well as medicine, to help individuals with asthma breathe better. Where as public health research will look at the whole neighbourhood or city and look at how many people have asthma, and what is putting them at risk. From this, researchers find ways to reduce the number of asthma cases in the community. They also look at whether or not people in the community with asthma have access to doctors.

What does this mean for you and CATS?
Being a part of CATS is a really important and special thing because YOU are contributing to public health research. You are helping us discover the best way to support other children in the future, so that they can grow up healthy. Thank you for doing such an amazing job and we hope you will continue taking part in CATS!

1. Dyke, T., & Anderson, W. P. (2014). A history of health and medical research in Australia. The Medical journal of Australia, 201(1 Suppl), S33-6.
2. Harvard School of Public Health. Distinctions Between Public Health and Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/about/public-health-medicine/
3. American Public Health Association. Public Health vs. Clinical Health Professions: What’s the Difference? https://www.apha.org/professional-development/public-health-careermart/careers-in-public-health-newsletter/job-searching-salaries-and-more/public-health-vs-clinical-health-professions-whats-the-difference

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