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Public Health Response Systems In-Action: Learning from Local Health Departments’ Experiences with Acute and Emergency Incidents


  • Jennifer C Hunter
  • Jane E Yang
  • Adam W Crawley
  • Laura Biesiadecki
  • Tomás J Aragón


As part of their core mission, public health agencies attend to a wide range of disease and health threats, including those that require routine, acute, and emergency responses. While each incident is unique, the number and type of response activities are finite; therefore, through comparative analysis, we can learn about commonalities in the response patterns that could improve predictions and expectations regarding the resources and capabilities required to respond to future acute events. In this study, we interviewed representatives from more than 120 local health departments regarding their recent experiences with real-world acute public health incidents, such as infectious disease outbreaks, severe weather events, chemical spills, and bioterrorism threats. We collected highly structured data on key aspects of the incident and the public health response, particularly focusing on the public health activities initiated and community partners engaged in the response efforts. As a result, we are able to make comparisons across event types, create response profiles, and identify functional and structural response patterns that have import for future public health preparedness and response. Our study contributes to clarifying the complexity of public health response systems and our analysis reveals the ways in which these systems are adaptive to the character of the threat, resulting in differential activation of functions and partners based on the type of incident. Continued and rigorous examination of the experiences of health departments throughout the nation will refine our very understanding of what the public health response system is, will enable the identification of organizational and event inputs to performance, and will allow for the construction of rich, relevant, and practical models of response operations that can be employed to strengthen public health systems.

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  • Jennifer C Hunter & Jane E Yang & Adam W Crawley & Laura Biesiadecki & Tomás J Aragón, 2013. "Public Health Response Systems In-Action: Learning from Local Health Departments’ Experiences with Acute and Emergency Incidents," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 8(11), pages 1-13, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:plo:pone00:0079457
    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079457

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    References listed on IDEAS

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