An ethics framework for public health

Am J Public Health. 2001 Nov;91(11):1776-82. doi: 10.2105/ajph.91.11.1776.


More than 100 years ago, public health began as an organized discipline, its purpose being to improve the health of populations rather than of individuals. Given its population-based focus, however, public health perennially faces dilemmas concerning the appropriate extent of its reach and whether its activities infringe on individual liberties in ethically troublesome ways. In this article a framework for ethics analysis of public health programs is proposed. To advance traditional public health goals while maximizing individual liberties and furthering social justice, public health interventions should reduce morbidity or mortality; data must substantiate that a program (or the series of programs of which a program is a part) will reduce morbidity or mortality; burdens of the program must be identified and minimized; the program must be implemented fairly and must, at times, minimize preexisting social injustices; and fair procedures must be used to determine which burdens are acceptable to a community.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Community Health Planning / standards
  • Cost of Illness
  • Ethical Analysis
  • Ethics, Institutional*
  • Humans
  • Organizational Objectives
  • Program Evaluation
  • Public Health Administration / standards*
  • Social Justice
  • United States