Public health has been described as "the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private, communities and individuals." It is concerned with threats to the overall health of a community based on population health analysis. The population in question can be as small as a handful of people or as large as all the inhabitants of several continents (for instance, in the case of a pandemic). Public health has many sub-fields, but typically includes the interdisciplinary categories of epidemiology, biostatistics and health services. Environmental health, community health, behavioral health, and occupational health are also important areas of public health.
The great positive impact of public health programs is widely acknowledged. Due in part to the policies and actions developed through public health, the 20th century registered a decrease in the mortality rates for infants and children and a continual increase in life expectancy in most parts of the world. For example, it is estimated that life expectancy has increased for Americans by thirty years since 1900, and worldwide by six years since 1990.
Co payments were introduced in the 1980s in an attempt to prevent over utilization. The average length of hospital stay in Germany has decreased in recent years from 14 days to 9 days, still considerably longer than average stays in the United States (5 to 6 days). Part of the difference is that the chief consideration for hospital reimbursement is the number of hospital days as opposed to procedures or diagnosis. Drug costs have increased substantially, rising nearly 60% from 1991 through 2005. Despite attempts to contain costs, overall health care expenditures rose to 10.7% of GDP in 2005, comparable to other western European nations, but substantially less than that spent in the U.S. (nearly 16% of GDP).
The meaning of health has evolved over time. In keeping with the biomedical perspective, early definitions of health focused on the theme of the body's ability to function; health was seen as a state of normal function that could be disrupted from time to time by disease. An example of such a definition of health is: "a state characterized by anatomic, physiologic, and psychological integrity; ability to perform personally valued family, work, and community roles; ability to deal with physical, biological, psychological, and social stress". Then in 1948, in a radical departure from previous definitions, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed a definition that aimed higher: linking health to well-being, in terms of "physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity". Although this definition was welcomed by some as being innovative, it was also criticized as being vague, excessively broad and was not construed as measurable. For a long time, it was set aside as an impractical ideal and most discussions of health returned to the practicality of the biomedical model.