There is a well-known quotation by the nineteenth-century sociologist Virchow (quoted in Ref. 1) that aptly captures the dilemma that has confronted public health medicine since the specialty was created as a discrete entity in 1848. Virchow said: 'Medicine is politics and social medicine is politics writ large!' What does this mean in relation to effective public health medicine practice and how is it likely to affect its future? There is increasingly limited freedom of expression within the current context of political correctness, central control and a rapidly burgeoning litigious climate. The purpose of this paper is to explore these issues and to propose a means of maintaining public health medicine integrity within a working environment where action is becoming rapidly constrained by political rigidity. An additional factor to be included in the dialogue is the current context within which public health physicians work. Because the majority of public health doctors are employed within the National Health Service (NHS), they are finding themselves being expected to take on tasks and responsibilities marginal to their essential purpose and function. For example, public health physicians spend a great deal of time involved in detailed deliberations about health service provision. Although there is a great deal of evidence to show that good quality health care provision positively affects the health of the individual, there is no evidence to show that this activity has any effect on the population's health status. The essence of public health medicine practice is the prevention of ill-health and the promotion of the health of the population and, consequently, attention needs to be focused on the root causes of disease. However, as these are outside the aegis of the NHS, public health medicine involvement in such issues as education, nutrition, housing, transport and poverty is regarded as marginal to the NHS corporate agenda.
Comment In: J Public Health Med. 2002 Dec;24(4):34112546215
Comment In: J Public Health Med. 2002 Dec;24(4):341-2; author reply 34212546216