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What is Population Health Research?

Description and Selected Readings

Although no formal consensus about the definition of population health research yet exists (see Kindig & Stoddart, 2003), most descriptions of the field include one or more of the following characterizations:

  • Population health research is an interdisciplinary field focusing on the health outcomes of groups of individuals, which can be defined variously (e.g., workers at a workplace, residents of a neighborhood, people sharing a common race or social status, or the population of a nation).
  • Population health researchers conduct studies that seek to characterize, explain and/or influence the levels and distributions of health within and across populations.
  • Population health researchers view health as the product of multiple determinants at the biologic, genetic, behavioral, social, and environmental levels and their interactions among individuals and groups and across time and generations.
  • The field addresses health outcomes, health determinants, and policies and interventions that link the two (Kindig & Stoddart, 2003) in efforts to improve population health and ameliorate health disparities.

Population health research encompasses many different substantive foci, disciplines, theories, and methodologies. It can address a diverse set of health outcomes, from biological markers of physiological function or health-related behaviors to general well-being or mortality. As suggested above, it may address a broad set of health determinants, either singly or in combination.

The resources listed below offer a sampling of the field of population health research. Because population health research is defined by a set of focal problems, not by boundaries describing what kinds of science are relevant, no one list of articles is likely to precisely or satisfactorily capture the field. The list below attempts to provide a taste of both the focal concerns of the field and the breadth of the science that contributes to it.

Key Concepts

Kindig, DA, Stoddart G. 2003. What is population health? American Journal of Public Health 93:366-369. (And related Blog)

Rose G. 1985. Sick individuals and sick populations. International Journal of Epidemiology, 14(1)32-38. See also:

  • Commentary on Rose 1985: Int J Epidemiol 30(3): 433-424.
  • Katherine Frohlich & Louise Potvin. “The inequality paradox: The population approach and vulnerable populations.” Am J Public Health 2008; 98(2): 216-221.

Link B, Phelan J. 1995. Social conditions as fundamental causes of disease. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 35, extra issue: Forty Years of Medical Sociology: The State of the Art and Directions for the Future: 80-94.

Disparities in Health across Groups and Populations

Adler NE, Rehkopf DH. 2008. U.S. disparities in health: Descriptions, causes, and mechanisms. Annual Review of Public Health 29: 235-252.

Williams DR, Collins C. 2001. Racial residential segregation: A fundamental cause of racial disparities in health. Public Health Reports. 116:404-416.

Banks J, Marmot M, Oldfield Z, Smith J. 2006. Disease and disadvantage in the United States and in England. Journal of the American Medical Association 295(17):2037-2045.

Murray CJL, Kulkarni SC, Michaud C, Tomijima N, Bulzacchelli MT, et al. 2006. Eight Americas: Investigating mortality disparities across races, counties, and race-counties in the United States. PLoS Med 3(9): e260.


Evans, RG and GL Stoddart. 1990. "Producing health, consuming health care." Social Science and Medicine 31: 1347-1363.

Glass TA, McAtee MJ. 2006. Behavioral science at the crossroads in public health: Extending horizons, envisioning the future. Social Science and Medicine 62: 1650-1671.

Krieger, Nancy. 2005. Embodiment: a conceptual glossary for epidemiology. J Epidemiol Community Health 59:350-355.

Health Determinants: Beyond Health Care

McGinnis JM, Foege WH. 1993. Actual causes of death in the United States. Journal of the American Medical Association 270:2207-2212.

Catalano, R., Goldman-Mellor, S., Saxton, K., Margerison-Zilko, C., Subbaraman, M., LeWinn, K. and Anderson E. 2011. The Health effects of economic decline. Annual Review of Public Health 32: 431-450.

Cattell V. 2001. Poor people, poor places, and poor health: the mediating role of social networks and social capital. Social Science & Medicine 52: 1501-1516.

Cockerham, W.C. 2005. Health lifestyle theory and the convergence of agency and structure," Journal of Health and Social Behavior 46(March): 51-67.

Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin BS, and Gwaltney JM. 1997. Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. Journal of the American Medical Association 277(24):1940-43.

Evans GW & Kantrowitz E. 2002. Socioeconomic Status and Health: The Potential role of Environmental Risk Exposure. Annu Rev Public Health 23:303-331.

Seeman T, Epel E, Gruenewald T, Karlamangla A and McEwen BS. 2010. Socio-economic differentials in peripheral biology: Cumulative allostatic load. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1186: 223–239.

Szreter S, Woolcock M. 2004. Health by association? Social capital, social theory, and the political economy of public health. International Journal of Epidemiology 33: 650-667.

Methods and Approaches

Berkman, L. Social Epidemiology: Social Determinants of Health in the United States: Are We Losing Ground? 2009. Annu. Rev. Public Health 30:27–41

Gold, MR et al. 2002. "HALYs and QALYs and DALYs, Oh My: Similarities and Differences in Summary Measures of Population Health." Annual Review of Public Health 23: 115-134.

Macintyre S, Ellaway A and Cummins S. 2002. Place effects on health: how can we conceptualize, operationalize and measure them? Social Science & Medicine 55:125-39.

Implications and Outreach

Adler NE, Newman K. 2002. Socioeconomic Disparities In Health: Pathways And Policies. Health Affairs 21(2): 60-77.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America, 2009. Executive Summary: Beyond Health Care: New Directions to a Healthier America.

Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? (2007) A seven-part documentary series exploring racial and socioeconomic inequalities in health.

Research by HSS Scholars and Alumni

Haas S, Rohlfsen L. 2010. Life course determinants of racial and ethnic disparities in functional health trajectories. Soc Sci Med. 70(2):240-50.

Hatzenbuehler, ML. 2011. The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Pediatrics 127(5):896-903.

Tottenham N, Sheridan MA. 2010. A review of adversity, the amygdala and the hippocampus: a consideration of developmental timing. Front Hum Neurosci. 3:68.

More publications by HSS Scholars and alumni are listed on the individual scholar pages.