The link between public health and community health

In this article, we will look at the link between public health and community health, as well as some of the exciting new technologies in public health. We’ll explore some of the developments in public health tech and show the impact of technology on public health and how technology has improved public health.

Public health and community health are two closely linked fields, however, they have differences. Before we dive in deeper, we’ll clearly define the two so that you can better understand the differences.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines public health as “the art and science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organised efforts of society”. Narrowing things down, public health is defined as the “health of the population as a whole, especially as the subject of government regulation and support”.

Community health on the other hand also deals with health, but on a more localised level. As Britannica defines it, community health refers to the health of “a defined group of people, or community, and the actions and conditions that protect and improve the health of the community”. It also notes that those who live in a community live in “a somewhat localised area”.

So, both deal with people’s health but the main difference is one of scope and scale. Community health focuses on particular localised communities, while public health covers all of those communities as a collective population.

Whether looking at things locally or nationally, advances in technology are having a huge impact on health care. Next, we’ll take a look at the various ways these new technologies are changing the face of public health.

Public health and new tech

Public health has benefited greatly from new technological developments and health tech is an exciting and rapidly moving field. Modern medicine has grown off the back of many scientific discoveries. From antibiotics and penicillin through to X rays and radiography, scientific discoveries have opened up new avenues for healthcare and continue to do so today.

In a paper on digital technologies, the WHO said that new tech has already “opened up a wealth of possibilities for shaping the future of primary health care and ensuring effective public health action” and noted how they have sped up changes in terms of education and policy, and have “created new patterns of communication, empowerment and engagement”.

Recent advances in new technologies like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and nanotechnology are opening up new opportunities for healthcare. The widespread use of smartphones allows for far better information and tracking than was ever possible, while drone technology is now being used for deliveries of medical supplies.

Next, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of technology on public health. We’ll also look at some practical examples of how new technologies have improved public health and improved the lives of people here in South Africa.

New technologies in public health for local communities

With the fast pace of health tech, there are new developments all the time. A report commissioned by the Netherlands government found that South Africa’s “healthcare technology market presents significant opportunities for growth”, adding that the health tech market was being driven towards rapid growth both locally and globally.

Here are some of the areas where technology has huge potential for improving the health of people across all communities.


Telemedicine replaces the need for people to physically visit a clinic or doctor’s office when seeking consultation by doing it online. Online consultations through video chat offer several benefits to physical visits. Telemedicine was already on the rise before Covid-19, but it has grown enormously as a result of social distancing and fears people have of going to a clinic where the risk of being infected is far higher than at home.

Wearable sensors

New developments in wearable technology allow for constant monitoring of various vital life signs such as blood pressure, heart rate, exercise and even quality of sleep. Together with mobile technology, the collected data can easily be collected and relayed for analysis, while saving the patient the hassle of a medical visit.


Nanotechnology, or nanotech for short, involves technology at an incredibly small scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter and nanotech deals with objects of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers. We are still quite a long way off from science fiction visions of having fleets of microscopic robots in our bodies to fight bacteria and viruses or rebuild tissue to heal injuries, but the advancements are still very exciting. Real-world uses so far have involved microscopic cameras that can capture images from inside the body.

How has technology improved public health in communities?

In the above section, we looked at some of the new technologies that are being used in medicine and health, but you may also wonder how technology has improved public health in communities? Here we’ll look at some interesting examples of how technology has improved public health here in South Africa.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is being used in some fascinating ways as an alternative to anaesthetics, especially for operations where an anaesthetic is not possible. Patients are given virtual reality headsets to take their mind off the operation and pain, for example by showing a tropical beach setting or some other pleasant experience. Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg recently trialled a project with the Reach for a Dream Foundation where critically ill children unable to travel under lockdown were able to experience their lifelong dream of swimming with dolphins through virtual reality.

3D printing

3D printing is being used for prosthetics and replacing body parts. South Africa can claim a world first in this area. Dr Mashudu Tshifularo, the head of the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pretoria, carried out the world’s first middle ear implant to improve hearing in 2019.

Health and related technology courses

Health tech exists at the meeting point of technology and medicine. Depending on your approach or interests, there are different ways to get involved. Those developing the technologies – the techies and the inventors – normally have more of a science and engineering background. However, the people who end up using these new health technologies usually have a medical or public health background.

Due to the wide range of types of health tech, those who develop them come from all walks of life. While many have an engineering or technical background, others have used software and programming skills to develop new technologies. Some health tech has required entirely new inventions, but often it is just a case of people having innovative ideas in thinking up new ways of using existing technology.

Should you be interested in developing new health tech, then an engineering degree or an information technology degree would be a good starting point. If you’re less interested in developing the technology and would rather just use it in the course of your work, then following the public health route would be better for you.

If you’d like to pursue a career in public health, then a postgraduate public health qualification will open up opportunities for advancement. Have a look at the University of Pretoria’s Postgraduate Diploma in Public Health or the other online programmes on offer.

If you’d like to learn more about the public health system, please also read our article on what the public health system does.