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A multidimensional classification of public health activity in Australia

Louisa Jorm1*, Su Gruszin2 and Tim Churches3

Author Affiliations

1 School of Medicine, University of Western Sydney, Campbelltown Campus, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith South DC, NSW 1797, Australia

2 Public Health Information Development Unit, The University of Adelaide, Level 9, 10 Pulteney St, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia

3 Centre for Epidemiology and Research, New South Wales Department of Health, Locked Mail Bag 961, North Sydney, NSW 2059, Australia

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Australia and New Zealand Health Policy 2009, 6:9  doi:10.1186/1743-8462-6-9

Published: 9 April 2009



At present, we have very limited ability to compare public health activity across jurisdictions and countries, or even to ascertain differences in what is considered to be a public health activity. Existing standardised health classifications do not capture important dimensions of public health, which include its functions, the methods and interventions used to achieve these, the health issues and determinants of health that public health activities address, the resources and infrastructure they use, and the settings in which they occur. A classification that describes these dimensions will promote consistency in collecting and reporting information about public health programs, expenditure, workforce and performance. This paper describes the development of an initial version of such a classification.


We used open-source Protégé software and published procedures to construct an ontology of public health, which forms the basis of the classification. We reviewed existing definitions of public health, descriptions of public health functions and classifications to develop the scope, domain, and multidimensional class structure of the ontology. These were then refined through a series of consultations with public health experts from across Australia, culminating in an initial classification framework.


The public health classification consists of six top-level classes: public health 'Functions'; 'Health Issues'; 'Determinants of Health'; 'Settings'; 'Methods' of intervention; and 'Resources and Infrastructure'. Existing classifications (such as the international classifications of diseases, disability and functioning and external causes of injuries) can be used to further classify large parts of the classes 'Health Issues', 'Settings' and 'Resources and Infrastructure', while new subclass structures are proposed for the classes of public health 'Functions', 'Determinants of Health' and 'Interventions'.


The public health classification captures the important dimensions of public health activity. It will facilitate the organisation of information so that it can be used to address questions relating to any of these dimensions, either singly or in combination. The authors encourage readers to use the classification, and to suggest improvements.