The Importance of Community Engagement in Public Health

Communities wield significant power in protecting their members, particularly when it comes to public health issues. The loudest example of this as of late is the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, there are many ways in which community engagement fosters better health outcomes.

What Exactly Is Community Engagement?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines community engagement as: “a process of developing relationships that enable stakeholders to work together to address health-related issues and promote well-being to achieve positive health impact and outcomes.” This effort represents a collaboration between public health professionals, government officials and community members to implement public health initiatives.

That said, it’s important to note that “community” is not just limited to a civic definition. It may reflect faith-based organizations, cultural/racial groups or even life-stage groups.

Scope May Have Changed, but the Mission Remains the Same

Although it has received a great deal of attention over the last two-plus years, community engagement is not new. Public health experts incorporated community engagement as early as the 1900s. At the time, their primary focus was to control communicable diseases by urging individuals to spread the word about proper hygiene and immunizations.

Since then, community engagement has evolved to address chronic disease prevention and management, anti-tobacco advocacy, bioterrorism preparation and social determinants of health (SDOH).

Ultimately, the goal of community engagement with respect to public health is to:

  • build trust
  • enlist new resources and allies
  • create better communication
  • improve overall health outcomes

Community Engagement in Action

Community engagement is involved in nearly every element of society, even though it may not be apparent. If you’ve ever attended a public health “fair” or received a vaccination at a remote immunization clinic, you participated in community engagement.

One real-time example involves African American faith leaders, who were instrumental in educating their church members about COVID-19 and urging them to get vaccinated. As a result, many churches even hosted vaccination clinics.

Another example supports the value of community engagement in certain populations. During the height of the pandemic, many members of Hispanic communities were under-informed about COVID-19 prevention measures. Multi-generational families often reside in the same household, so individuals who had to work outside the home throughout the pandemic may have put older family members at risk.

If just one family member attended a public health forum, they could spread awareness to their inner circle and then, in turn, support promotion of the public health effort to the rest of the community. Community engagement efforts aimed to execute this information domino effect when COVID-19 vaccines became available.

Community Engagement’s Role in Health Equity

The above examples are specific to cultural attitudes and the COVID-19 pandemic, but community engagement plays a role in addressing many areas of diversity and health equity. Public health professionals are key players in addressing SDOH.

Healthy People 2030, a subset of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lists the following as SDOH examples:

  • Safe housing and transportation
  • Racism, discrimination, violence
  • Education, job opportunities, income
  • Access to nutritious foods and physical activity opportunities
  • Polluted air and water
  • Language and literacy skills

Much of this effort begins within public health organizations and the education public health professionals receive. Master of public health programs like the one offered at William Paterson University (WP) include courses specific to SDOH and community engagement, among other important areas of study like public health interventions, policy and leadership.

Local or Global, Community Engagement Changes Lives

There’s no doubt about it: Fostering community engagement aids healthcare and governmental organizations to improve public health. Individuals who choose the public health path effectively change the trajectory of health outcomes, locally and globally.

Learn more about William Paterson University’s Master of Public Health online program.

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