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Our communities play a central role in our individual health and the health of our families. The collective actions of business, government, individuals, and nonprofit leaders in your community can directly impact quality of life and health outcomes for the people who live there — whether it’s obvious or not. Life expectancy can differ by as much as 20 years in neighborhoods that are only a few miles from each other.

An individual’s health is influenced by their larger community, and the health of those communities is influenced by each individual. Here’s what it means and why it matters to you.

What Is Community Health?

Community health is the collective level of overall health for a group of people who live, work, or play together. A community can be defined by geography, but it can also be groups of employees or members of a similar cultural group. Different communities often overlap, but whatever their makeup, healthier communities lead to healthier people. And communities are often their healthiest when all members — government entities, nonprofits, employers — work together to connect people with the resources they need.

One example is how health companies connect people with community resources: “Health plans have social workers on staff who are community health workers and know their local networks. If you need help with housing, they’ll tell you to go to this shelter. If this shelter is closed, go to this shelter. If you don't, then you can come over here,” said Dr. Shantanu Agrawal, chief health officer at Elevance Health. “There are organizations they can turn to. Those are considered part of the social safety net.”

Healthcare professionals and other community leaders can use data-driven insights to identify how different social drivers impact people in a community and determine how community resources can be improved to better serve them. Are there homeless shelters if that is an issue for a community? Are there nearby health clinics for expectant parents? Are there enough grocery stores and pharmacies? The goal is to improve health outcomes for individuals and their communities.

Community Health vs. Public Health

The U.S. has a long history of public health efforts, but they often focus on limiting the spread of diseases. That is what’s known as public health — often front and center during the COVID-19 pandemic, when epidemiologists and other public health officials worked to control the disease. While this is important, it’s just a part of the larger community health equation, which focuses more on the overall contributors to a population’s physical and mental health. 

Though not the only contributor, where we live is a major factor in determining community health. It is also defined by a number of other variables including socioeconomic factors like income, education, and employment — key factors in health inequities — as well as mental health, obesity, maternal health, and substance use disorder. Other factors that play a central role in the health of a community include nutrition, housing, transportation, clean air and water, open space for exercise, social activities, and a strong economy.

A community health concern might be high rates of obesity among a certain group of people, which are exacerbated by a lack of access to nutritious food and high rates of smoking. Or high rates of asthma along with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Efforts to improve community health have ripple effects. For instance, water fluoridation lowers the prevalence of tooth decay, which lowers the risk of heart disease.

When it comes to community health vs. public health, both are necessary to improve health outcomes. Efforts to address community health can include:

  • Improving access to quality healthcare.
  • Integrating social factors like transportation, nutrition, and the local economy into the view of community health.
  • Identifying the most pressing public health concerns within the community.
  • Developing an intervention plan to address resource gaps.
  • Educating residents on the benefits of preventive care and healthy behaviors.
  • Working with community agencies to address nutrition, housing, transportation, and other factors.

Communities are where health is created and supported. To reinforce this, healthcare professionals, business and political leaders, organizations, and residents need to listen, understand, and collaborate. Healthcare organizations can act as a catalyst and conduit, leveraging their data, technology, and relationships to create cohesive support networks that meet the unique needs of a community. The goal is to improve overall health and continue advancing health equity.

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