Research in Health Departments

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The Dictionary of Epidemiology defines research as "the organized quest for new knowledge, based on curiosity or on perceived needs. Research may consist of systematic empirical observation or hypothesis testing and the use of a preplanned research design such as an experiment." Research can take many forms but the basic goal is the discovery of new knowledge.

Some state health departments have been extensively involved in research, especially New York, Massachusetts, and California. However, the majority of local health departments are part of municipal or county governments and do not have the resources, trained personnel, or incentive to do research. Most local health department research has been limited to epidemiological studies in communicable disease outbreaks or community assessments to determine community health profiles. However, research is increasingly becoming an item on health departments' agendas. In 1994 the National Association of County Health Officials published ten essential elements needed for any community trying to achieve the highest level of health possible. To "research new insights and innovative solutions to problems" is on that list. In the 1990s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine, and the Association of Schools of Public Health began developing cooperative agreements to encourage the development of public health collaborative research ventures. This connection between public health agencies, which can identify problems and issues needing more data, and academic institutions with trained and experienced research personnel should lead to improved knowledge that can be translated into improved practice.

Both state and local health departments can benefit from joining with academic institutions for public health research. There are many who can collaborate on research. From universities the partners may include epidemiologists, occupational medicine specialists, social scientists, and health-behavior clinicians. From the public health side, practitioners in health education, environmental health, communicable and chronic disease control, and program planning and implementation can be involved.

Since health departments are involved with the practice of public health and have the responsibility to protect the public from potential health hazards, their communities may benefit most from prevention research. This type of research would allow health departments to identify at-risk populations, to identify potentially dangerous environmental and other hazards, to develop communication strategies that promote appropriate health behavior and effective means of reducing the level or impact of these hazards, and to evaluate the effects of their interventions.

Prevention research can investigate how and why people utilize different preventive services such as cancer screenings and vaccinations. It can develop monitoring systems that follow disease trends and identify emerging problems. It can study better ways to discourage health-harming behaviors and encourage health-enhancing ones.

It can look at methods that better educate the public health work force to meet future challenges.

Linkages between public health agencies and academic institutions are beginning to materialize. These collaborations have produced results that can be introduced into public health practice, where they can then provide benefits to communities. Continued cooperative ventures have the potential to use resources more efficiently, bring together disciplines that have traditionally been separate, and create innovative solutions to problems.

Marguerite A. Erme

(see also: Essential Public Health Services; Laboratories Services )


The Institute of Medicine (1998). The Future of Public Health. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Lane, D. S. (1999). "Research Linkages Between Academia and Public Health PracticeBuilding a Prevention Research Agenda." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 16(3S):79.

Lasker, R. D., and the Committee on Medicine and Public Health (1997). Medicine and Public Health: The Power of Collaborators. New York: New York Academy of Medicine.

Last, John M., ed. (1995). A Dictionary of Epidemiology, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford Press.

Scutchfield, F. D., and Keck, C. W. (1996). Principles of Public Health Practice. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

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Research in Health Departments

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