Public Health Citizen Advisory Boards
Ned E. Baker, Marie Fallon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0016


From the earliest colonial days, the citizens of North American colonies banded together to protect their health from the ravages of epidemics. As the colonies became a nation, many local governments called upon their citizens to help them control the spread of disease and improve sanitation. These same governments in the late 18th century began to appoint citizen boards of health to advise them on issues of public health. In the mid-19th century, one of the most notable and extraordinary early documents on public health was published: “Report of the Sanitary Commission of Massachusetts” (Shattuck, et al. 1850, cited under Introductory Works), authored by Lemuel Shattuck, Nathaniel Banks, and Jehiel Abbot. Shattuck, the principal author, was a layman and a legislator appointed to chair a legislative committee to study the health and sanitary problems of the Commonwealth. One of the primary recommendations in this report was to establish a state board of health and to create local citizen boards of health in every community in Massachusetts. In 1876, this report was presented to the International Medical Congress, which endorsed it as a model and guide for the development of modern public health services in the country. Today, public health relies on the strength and involvement of the citizen constituency it serves. In nearly every state, boards of health, public health councils, or similar bodies provide governance for local health departments, establish public health policies, or advise public health policy makers. Most boards of health are governing and/or policy making bodies. Those boards of health that are only advisory still have the vital role of providing input and advice to policy makers and health officials. All types of boards of health can appoint citizen advisory committees to further address public health needs and actions. Citizen advisory boards and committees provide the community engagement needed to translate science into practice that results in desired public health outcomes. While more than 20,000 US citizens serve on official boards of health, many other community citizens are involved on sub-boards or committees providing advice to the boards of health, other governing bodies, or public health officials. Most boards of health and health officials utilize advisory groups of citizens on either a permanent or ad hoc basis to assist in conducting community health assessments and developing programs to deal with health concerns related to such issues as tobacco use, second-hand smoke, and obesity. Many program directors, such as directors of public health nursing and environmental health, utilize citizen advisory groups to advise them on their specific programs. Public health is a community affair involving citizens and stakeholders from the community to enhance the effectiveness of public health programs by establishing partnerships.

Introductory Works

Citizen advisory boards of health provide guidance and input for governmental public health departments and agencies. Early health departments were established in colonial North America before the end of the Revolutionary War. Paul Revere assembled several interested and influential citizens of Boston who formed one the first local boards of health. The board provided input to the Boston Health Department. Other cities and municipalities followed Boston’s example, believing that involving the citizens in solving the community’s problems was critical to successful public health outcomes. Recognizing the effectiveness of local boards, similar boards were organized at the state level. The legal authorities and responsibilities for boards of health are defined in each state’s statutes, ranging from advisory to policy and governing roles. Because state constitutions differ, the roles and responsibilities of public health boards vary from state to state. Baker 2001 provides an overview of citizen advisory boards of health. Citrin 2001 addresses relationships between health boards and communities. Shattuck 1850 provides an assessment of the population and living conditions in Boston in the mid-19th century. It is, in many ways, a forerunner to these other works.

  • Baker, N. E. 2001 Boards of health. In Encyclopedia of public health.

    Definition and description of citizen advisory boards of health.

  • Citrin, Toby. 2001. Enhancing public health research and learning through community-academic partnerships. Public Health Reports 116.1: 74–78.

    DOI: 10.1093/phr/116.1.74

    This article is written by an expert in health board composition and activities. The author describes the importance of partnerships and how they contribute to the success of health boards and public health outcomes.

  • Fallon, L. Fleming, and Eric Zgodzinski. 2009. Essentials of public health management, 2d ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

    Chapter 17 provides an introduction to boards of health. Their roles are delineated and the various types of boards are described. The author has served on a local health board for several years.

  • Shattuck, Lemuel, Nathaniel Banks, and Jehiel Abbot. 1850. Report of a general plan for the promotion of public and personal health.

    This work is a comprehensive census assessment of the city of Boston in the mid-19th century, a landmark in statistical census data and its contribution to public health. It includes twenty-two sections on various features of Boston’s population and living conditions, including birthplace, water supply, education, health, occupation, wealth, marriages, and deaths.

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