Health Promotion: Why Does It Matter?

Published on: Mar 14, 2024

One of the most exciting ways public health differs from medicine is the focus on promoting health and not only addressing illness or disease. In its very definition of public health, the American Public Health Association (APHA) states that public health “promotes and protects the health of all people and their communities.”1  Check out this video from APHA that describes public health and how health promotion is a fundamental aspect of it:

Health promotion is a combination of strategies to increase individual and collective well-being and quality of life while preventing disease2. The World Health Organization describes health promotion as having three essential components, all of which focus on the prevention of the root causes of disease and not just the treatment of disease once someone is sick:

  • Health policy:

    government officials need to prioritize the potential impacts on health in their decisions, including creating parks and sidewalks for healthy cities. Further, regulations on private sector companies should be in place to promote health through initiatives like taxes on cigarettes and air quality regulations in emissions to support environmental health2.

  • Health literacy:

    to make healthy choices, people need first to have the background knowledge necessary to make these decisions2.

  • Healthy cities:

    this is an essential component of healthy living as urban planning initiatives need to consider ways communities can promote health. It also involves the establishment of primary health care facilities.

Health promotion is a key component of public health and includes a combination of programs and health policy efforts to improve community health and prevent disease. Health promotion work is essential as chronic disease, mental health concerns, and other health issues have a global impact on decreasing health and quality of life. 

This article will comprehensively introduce health promotion and showcase its pivotal role in public health. We will discuss the fundamental concepts of health promotion, its significance in preventing diseases and promoting well-being, and the various strategies employed. Additionally, the article guides readers through considerations for pursuing a career in health promotion, offering insights into the education, skills, and potential opportunities within this dynamic field.

Key Concepts in Health Promotion

A pivotal moment in establishing health promotion as a worldwide priority was the signing of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion. This charter was signed in 1986 by 38 countries and established the need for creating health promoting environments, strengthening communities, developing individual health-related skills, advocating for health policy and changing the focus of health care from that of treating disease to that of helping people live healthier lives3. The Charter defined health promotion as “ the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.”4 Forty years later, the Ottawa Charter is now considered a foundational effort in global public health and has been updated in 2016 with the Shanghai Declaration5.
Consistent with the fundamental belief that public health has a focus on wellness and quality of life in addition to disease prevention, the Charter established the following prerequisites for health: “peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice and equity”.4 This video shows how the Charter was developed and its key role in guiding health promotion for the past 40 years:

Determinants of health are not just about whether or not you have a disease or are sick, but rather include bigger picture ideas such as social, economic, environmental, community and individual facts that play a crucial role in shaping health outcomes. Health promotion aims to influence these determinants by developing policies that improve health, increasing health behaviors, and creating environments to improve overall well-being. Health promotion has a fundamentally holistic lens through which health is viewed. What does this mean? It means that the physical, mental, social and environmental aspects of health are interconnected. 

To improve health, comprehensive strategies that include all of these components must be developed. There are individual-level behaviors like diet, exercise and tobacco use that are often the subject of health promotion campaigns, combined with community level factors like environmental health, access to health care, and urban planning to create healthy cities. Initiatives like this are designed to promote healthier behaviors in individuals and create environments that promote well-being.

Strategies and Interventions in Health Promotion

Since the idea of promoting health is inherently broad, it can initially seem as though all efforts and interventions to this end must be similarly broad. Instead, various types or categories of programs are used as part of health promotion, all of which are designed to improve well-being.

  • Education and awareness campaigns:

    These initiatives are what many people think of when they think of public health - they’re designed to educate and inform people about health risks, the things they can do to minimize or eliminate said risk, and how to increase their own adoption of healthy behaviors. A well-known example is the classic “This is Your Brain on Drugs” PSA commercial that aired in the late 1980s. On a smaller scale, education campaigns can be events like workshops or specific community programs.

  • Community engagement and empowerment:

    A central aspect of public health is that individuals and communities should be involved in and empowered to make their own decisions about health and health care. By involving individuals and community representatives in making decisions and defining what is needed to improve the health of their local communities is a key way to ensure the programs developed are both needed and tailored. Collaboration between public health professionals and community members is key to developing strong and effective campaigns to improve health.

  • Policy advocacy for health promotion:

    Public health also functions with the core belief that it should not fall solely to individuals to improve their own health. Instead, policies that promote health and well-being must be in place. These policies include outlawing tobacco use in public spaces and taxing sugar-sweetened beverages to limit consumption.

  • Leveraging technology for health promotion initiatives:

    advances in technology in the last 20 years have drastically opened up the possibilities for health promotion initiatives. With new technology, people can track personal health information and activities like number of steps taken. Health care professionals can also offer telehealth services like video visits, which is especially helpful in mental health.

Each of these types of activities provides strategies to improve health behavior and offer health education. They can work independently or in a complementary way to create comprehensive public health programs.

Health Promotion as a Subset of Public Health

Health promotion has the overarching goal of improving the health and well-being of communities. It is closely tied to public health education, as we discuss in this article. Public health education and promotion aim to disseminate knowledge and encourage behavioral changes that lead individuals to engage in more healthy behaviors and ultimately lead healthier lives. 

One of the main areas of health promotion is that of disease prevention. Education around the importance of vaccines, the need for preventative screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies, and the importance of physical activity are examples of health promotion and disease prevention initiatives. Another area of health promotion that has gained traction in recent years is addressing health disparities via the social determinants of health. Social determinants of health are “conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”6 Efforts related to addressing health disparities can include focusing on underserved populations, programs that increase access to health care, and an emphasis on health equity to address long-standing social and cultural conditions that have caused some sub-groups of the population to have a worse health status. 

Ideally, health promotion efforts are collaborative and include both public health and health care professionals. These programs can have a broader reach and impact by having collaborative and interdisciplinary education and health promotion campaigns.

Considering a Career in Health Promotion

The first step in a career in health promotion is your own education: either a bachelor’s degree in public health (BPH) or a master’s degree in public health (MPH) is an ideal starting point. If you’re unsure if a public health career is right for you, we’ve outlined why the field can be an exciting career choice here. For any career in public health, there are a variety of skills that you will need. Some of the best skills to hone to excel in health promotion include both written and verbal communication skills, program planning and evaluation skills, and data analysis skills. Especially if you’re interested in working with diverse communities, being aware of cultural competency is another key component of success.  

If you’re looking for a job in health promotion, two of the most common careers in this field are health educators and community health workers. Other common roles in health promotion are in human services, as health care program coordinators, and in public policy advocacy. 

One of the biggest challenges in working in health promotion is that the issues you’re trying to address are entrenched in society. Preventing chronic health conditions and addressing health disparities is not a quick fix. Instead, these are complex challenging issues that take dedication and commitment to solve. While this is an enormous challenge, this challenge is also inherently what makes working in health promotion so rewarding as it is an opportunity to improve people’s health and quality of life in a way that will make a genuine difference to people and communities.

Health Promotion: Rewarding and Essential

As you’ve seen, health promotion is vital within the overall field of public health. Health promotion increases individual and collective well-being and quality of life while preventing diseases at the same time. There are many career options within the field, all of which can provide a personally and professionally rewarding career. Click here to review our list of MPH programs and get started on your own health promotion career!

About the Author

Written by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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