What is Health Policy?

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Stethoscope on a gavel

Health policy is used to direct activities aimed at accomplishing health goals in a society. A portion of the process of creating health goals is generally decided by health care administrators and public health specialists, but what is health policy to public administrators?

Public administrators are responsible for helping to determine the health concerns that need the most attention. The Master of Public Administration coursework provides students with the practical skills they will need to make legal and ethical decisions when producing health policy.

How Does Health Policy Relate to Public Health?

Public health is the promotion of good health for the people in a given community. The National Health Policy Forum defines the three core functions of public health as assessment, policy development, and assurance. Public health agencies at the state and local levels of government are often the key contributors to these goals and are run by public administrators who partner with health care providers, faith-based organizations, media outlets, private businesses, academic institutions, and advocacy groups to develop health policy that contributes to solving societal health issues.

What Is Health Policy?

Put simply, health policy is another tool used by public administrators to solve issues in their communities. Health policies work in the same way as other forms of public policy, such as law enforcement policy. The following is an example that spotlights how health policies work in comparison to other types of public policy:

  • If a community notices a growing issue of police officers using inappropriate tactics to enforce the law, a public administrator could push to implement public policy to require officers in that area to wear body cameras.
  • Similarly, a public administrator leading a community that faced influenza (flu) outbreak may use public health policy to mandate that flu vaccinations be distributed at no cost in local schools or hospitals.

In both situations, an issue can be solved by defining and enforcing a set of guidelines for the involved parties to follow, but it is up to the administration to determine the specific content of the policies.

What Is the Goal of Health Policy?

According to the World Health Organization, health policy can be used to achieve any of the following objectives:

  1. Defining short- and long-term visions for the future of public health.
  2. Building a consensus on how different groups should contribute to public health goals.
  3. Keeping people informed about progress toward public health goals.

Public administrators work alongside healthcare providers to ensure these objectives are achieved.

What Is a Public Administrator’s Role in Creating Health Policy?

Formulating health policy is inherently complex, as carrying out this process requires mitigating relevant social, political, and economic issues. Public administrators collaborate with public and private sector groups to strategize the most effective way to solve complex problems using health policy. To this end, they must learn how to engage in productive conversations with public health advocates and health care providers for the purpose of improving public health.

Health Policy Targets Different Goals at Each Government Level

The public health community exerts great effort to improve population health equity. The federal government often contributes funding to national government institutions that support public health, but public health policy is determined differently at the local and state levels of government.

The following explains how health policies may differ at each level:

Local Health Policy

The policies of a local public health institution are usually determined by a state-level authority, but local policymakers are given the autonomy to decide how they will implement those policies. This leads to a dissonance between how health policies are managed within, and among, different states.

Examples of health services that may be enforced through local health policy:

  • Clinical Prevention: Policies in this area of public health are aimed at providing clinical services to populations. A good example of this is local public entities implementing health policies that promote screenings for widespread diseases, like cancer or cardiovascular disease.
  • Medical Treatment: These policies are intended to help people receive medical treatments. An example of medical treatment-related health policy is a strategy for helping women from low-income or high-risk populations gain access to perinatal health services.

State Health Policy

Policymakers at the state level have more authority than local agencies, which results in a broader set of objectives for state health policy. Since state agencies also govern the local policymakers, they are also responsible for guiding local policies.

Examples of health services that state health entities might provide through health policy include the following:

  • Epidemiology: These services relate to the collection of data that can be used to understand health risks throughout populations. Policies are used to determine what data should be gathered and where it should be sourced. It can also dictate how that data should be used to improve public health.
  • Public Health Emergency Preparedness: When natural disasters or epidemics threaten societal health, public institutions call upon the policies they have in place to decide how they will respond. Depending on the severity of the incident, public administrators will usually coordinate their response with local governments as well as federal authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Regulation of Health Care Providers: State health policy is also used to determine how the government will inspect and license health care providers. These policies keep medical institutions from providing sub-par services that negatively affect public health.
  • Administration of Federal Public Health Programs: When Congress creates a public health program it is up to state administrators to implement these policies in their communities. They must come up with state policies for coordinating program operations, allocation of funds, and monitoring program performance.

By completing a Master of Public Administration, current public administrators can supplement their leadership skills with a functional knowledge of how to develop health policies that positively impact public health. Competency in this subject is important because decisions public administrators make regarding health policy have a significant impact on how well they are received by their constituents.

Learn More:

The online Master of Public Administration at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs can help you build the skills to address public needs in effective, efficient, and imaginative ways. We want you to put big ideas into action by helping you develop as a project manager, communicator, policy analyst, and financial mind. With an expert understanding of public administration and the professional tools to back it up, you can lead a career of consequence for your constituents.

Recommended Reading:

Ohio University Blog, “What an MPA Can Do For Your Career”
Ohio University Blog, “A Day in the Life of a Public Administrator”
Ohio University Blog, “5 Benefits of an MPA”


World Health Organization, Health Policy
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Policy
The National Center for Biotechnology Information, ” Understanding the Role of Public Administration in Implementing Action on the Social Determinants of Health and Health Inequities”
The National Health Policy Forum, “An Overview of State and Local Public Health Agencies” (PDF)
The American Public Health Association, What is Public Health?