In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Public Health Surveillance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals and Other Sources
  • Communicable Diseases
  • Noncommunicable Diseases
  • Injuries
  • Risk Factors and Health Determinants
  • Emerging Healthcare Methods
  • Emerging Information Technology
  • Dissemination and Communications
  • Ethics

Public Health Public Health Surveillance
Patrick L'Heureux Remington, Tracy Flood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0149


The ultimate goal of public health is to assure the conditions necessary for all people to live a long and healthy life. Public health surveillance serves a vital role in achieving this goal by measuring risk factors (i.e., health determinants) and health outcomes; setting goals for the future; and monitoring progress toward those goals over time. Defined as the ongoing systematic collection, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of health data for use in planning, implementing, and evaluating of public health practice, public health surveillance is needed for continuous quality improvement in population health. Surveillance has been described as a continuous process or “loop” involving four components: (1) data collection, (2) analysis, (3) interpretation, and (4) dissemination. Each of these components requires different skills and involves different parts of the public health system. Quantitative skills such as survey research methods and epidemiology are required to establish data collection and analytic systems respectively. The final link in the surveillance chain is the application of surveillance findings toward disease prevention and health promotion. This interpretation and dissemination of surveillance data requires knowledge of diverse health problems and skills in health communications and program planning. It’s been said that you can’t improve what you can’t measure—thus public health surveillance serves as the foundation of all public health improvement efforts.

General Overviews

Disease surveillance has been a key function of public health systems for over a century. However, the broader concept of “public health surveillance” was developed in the early 1980s, extending surveillance to include the multiple determinants of health (e.g., health behaviors, healthcare, socioeconomic factors, the physical environment) and an explicit action step beyond the simple dissemination of results. Thacker, et al. 2012; Berkelman, et al. 2009; and MacDonald 2011 provide concise overviews of the definitions and attributes of public health surveillance. Nsubuga, et al. 2006, Castillo-Salgado 2010, and McNabb 2010 describe contemporary public health surveillance issues and challenges in a broader global context. Finally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2012; Thacker, et al. 2012; and Smith, et al. 2013 describe challenges for surveillance in the United States and provide a useful framework for public health surveillance looking to the future.

  • Berkelman, R. L., P. S. Sullivan, and J. W. Buehler. 2009. Public health surveillance. In Oxford textbook of public health. Vol. 2, Methods of public health. Edited by R. Detels, R. Beaglehole, M. A. Lansing, and M. Gulliford, 699–715. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/med/9780199218707.001.0001

    This chapter provides a comprehensive overview of public health surveillance—from the rationale to design approaches to practical uses and future directions. It is written for those who are not familiar with public health surveillance.

  • Castillo-Salgado, Carlos. 2010. Trends and directions of global public health surveillance. Epidemiological Review 32.1: 93–109.

    DOI: 10.1093/epirev/mxq008

    This review updates the current state of knowledge on global public health surveillance, including the role of international health regulations, the emergence of global health networks for surveillance and bioterrorism, and the reshaping of guidelines for global surveillance. It concludes with a discussion of the important challenges of global health surveillance. Also available online.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2012. CDC’s vision for public health surveillance in the 21st century. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 61. Atlanta: CDC.

    This Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) supplement summarizes CDC’s vision for public health surveillance in the future, including a strategic framework. The first report is an overview of the topic, and the subsequent reports summarize the discussions of workgroups that have addressed specific topics in surveillance science and practices.

  • MacDonald, P. D. M. 2011. Methods in field epidemiology. Jones and Bartlett Learning. Burlington, MA: APHA.

    Chapter 3 of this introductory textbook is a well-written description of the uses and categories of public health surveillance, as well as the usual sources of data. Part of the Jones and Bartlett public health series, it is a useful reference for undergraduate public health students.

  • McNabb, S. J. 2010. Comprehensive effective and efficient global public health surveillance. BMC Public Health 10, supp. 1: S3.

    DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-10-S1-S3

    McNabb describes both the disarray and advances of global public health surveillance, including efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO)—specifically international health regulations—the extension of technology to developing nations, and the blending of national security with public health concerns.

  • Nsubuga, P., M. E. White, S. B. Thacker, et al. 2006. Public health surveillance: A tool for targeting and monitoring interventions. In Disease control priorities for developing countries. 2d ed. Edited by D. T. Jamison, J. G. Breman, A. R. Measham, et al., 997–1015. Washington, DC: World Bank.

    DOI: 10.1596/978-0-8213-6179-5/Chpt-53

    This is an excellent overview that takes a global focus and complements the Thacker and Lee 2011, cited under Historical Overviews.

  • Smith, F. P., J. L. Hadler, M. Stanbury, R. T. Rolfs, and R. S. Hopkins. 2013. “Blueprint version 2.0”: Updating public health surveillance for the 21st century. Journal of Public Health Management Practice 19.3: 231–239.

    DOI: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e318262906e

    This recent paper reports the results of a US-based national surveillance committee that examined the current status and future trends of public health surveillance. Three future challenges include (1) preparedness and national security, (2) new information technologies, and (3) health care reform.

  • Thacker, S. B., J. R. Qualters, and L. M. Lee. 2012. Public health surveillance in the United States: Evolution and challenges. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 61. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    A brief overview of contemporary issues related to public health surveillance in the United States.

  • Thacker, S. B., and D. F. Stroup. 2006. Public health surveillance. In Applied Epidemiology. 2d ed. Edited by Ross Brownson and Diana Petitti, 30–67. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195187410.001.0001

    Provides a basic plain-language overview of public health surveillance, including its origins, sources of data, methodology, and uses of data. An excellent overview of the field despite the somewhat dated examples used in the text.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.