Nearly 90% of Americans believe that diet and exercise play the greatest role in influencing their health, and only 44% say that where one lives is an important factor, according to a national survey released today by the de Beaumont Foundation. Data from the National Academy of Medicine and other sources indicate that at least 80 percent of a person’s overall health is shaped by social and environmental factors like housing stability and quality, food, and access to parks and public transportation.

The survey reveals that awareness of health departments is low, and people believe that doctors, schools, police, and firefighters have a greater impact on their communities’ health.

“The health of our communities largely determines the health of our citizens,” said Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation. “Because of that, public health departments are vital to community health and individual health. To improve both their visibility and impact, health departments will need adequate funding, partnerships with other sectors, and the ability to demonstrate and communicate their value.”

Also uncovered through the national survey of voters:

  • Americans believe the factors that most influence health are personal choices like diet and exercise (87%), the environment (79%), and access to healthcare (78%). Only 44% said that where a person lives plays a major role.
  • Americans believe hospitals, schools, fire departments, and police departments play a more important role in making their community healthier than public health departments. 56% said their local public health department plays an important role, compared with 79% for hospitals, 75% for schools, 72% for fire departments, and 68% for police departments.
  • Among national voters, 66% of women said public health departments are important to community health (scoring them 8-10 on a 10-point scale), compared with only 46% of men.
  • In both rural areas and nationally, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to value the role of public health departments. Among Democrats, 71% said public health departments play an important role, compared with 54% of Independents and 42% of Republicans. Only 17% of Republicans gave public health departments a score of 10 (“very important”), compared with 36% of Democrats.

The perceptions of these organizations were similar among national voters and rural voters, each of whom rated public health departments above parks, libraries, and businesses in their impact on the community’s health.

The poll findings suggest another reason why people may undervalue the work of local health departments: They’re not familiar with them. Nationally, only 15% said they are “very familiar” with their local health department and 34% are “somewhat familiar.” More than half, 51%, said they are “not too familiar” or “not at all familiar” with the department.

Public Opinion Strategies conducted a national telephone survey among 1,000 registered voters from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, 2018 (55% landline and 45% cell). The margin of error for a 1,000-person sample size is +3.1%.

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