Local health departments in the United States
A local health department is a government agency in the United States on the front lines of public health. Local health departments may be entities of local or state government and often report to a mayor, city council, county board of health or county commission. There are approximately 2,800 local health departments across the United States.
These city, county, metropolitan, district, and tribal departments work every day to ensure the safety of the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. Members of a community may not always see the work done by local health departments, but people live healthier lives and are safer because of the work of local health departments.
Local health departments help create and maintain conditions in communities that support healthier choices in areas such as diet, exercise, and tobacco. They lead efforts that prevent and reduce the effects of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. They detect and stop outbreaks of diseases like measles, tuberculosis, and foodborne illnesses. They protect children and adults from infectious diseases through immunization. Local health departments also conduct programs that are shown to effectively make communities healthier. Some local health departments programs include:
- Helping ensure clean drinking water, access to safe and healthy foods, and children’s safety through use of car seats.
- Enforcing laws and regulations that keep people safe (e.g. smoke-free air laws, restaurant inspections, water and sewer treatment, etc.).
- Tracking, investigating and stopping diseases and other public health threats (e.g. foodborne illness, HIV/AIDS, etc.).
- Developing emergency plans and responding to disasters when they strike (e.g. bioterrorism, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, etc.).
- Mobilizing community partners to work together to address local public health challenges (e.g. a lack of safe places for kids to play after school, limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.).
- Inspecting restaurants, community farmers’ markets, street fair vendors, and other venues where the public gathers to eat.
- Informing the public about health problems in the community and how to stay safe.
Local health departments play a central role in providing essential public health services in communities that fall into the following ten categories:
- Monitor health status to identify and solve community health problems.
- Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community.
- Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues.
- Mobilize community partnerships and action to identify and solve health problems.
- Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts.
- Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety.
- Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of healthcare when otherwise unavailable.
- Assure competent public and personal healthcare workforce.
- Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services.
- Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems.
- NACCHO naccho.org, May 2012