J Epidemiol Community Health 57:324-326 doi:10.1136/jech.57.5.324
  • Public health policy and practice

What is a public health observatory?

  1. J Hemmings,
  2. J Wilkinson
  1. Northern and Yorkshire Public Health Observatory, Wolfson Research Institute, Stockton on Tees, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J Wilkinson, Northern and Yorkshire Public Health Observatory, Wolfson Research Institute, University of Durham Stockton Campus, University Boulevard, Stockton on Tees TS17 6BH, UK;
  • Accepted 4 October 2002


The dictionary definition of an observatory is1:

  • An institution or building term specifically designed or equipped for observing meteorological and astronomical phenomena;

  • Any building or structure providing an extensive view of its surroundings.

The word “observatory” is well understood. However, there is no clear consensus and little discussion about what constitutes an “observatory” in the many new contexts in which the term is applied. The adoption of this description for a public health function warrants a clear definition and explanation for the following reasons:

Firstly, clarity about the nature of an institution, especially a new institution, is necessary to inform others’ expectations. The functions of, for example, a cancer registry, are well understood, and the services and information that can be expected from them are clear. Developing an established identity for observatories is essential, both to ensure that potential users and partners may effectively access their services, and that they adhere to their remit rather than becoming umbrella organisations for disparate functions. Experiences at the Northern and Yorkshire Public Health Observatory confirm that many health professionals and colleagues in other agencies are still unclear about what a public health observatory is.

Secondly, some joint understanding of what constitutes an observatory may facilitate negotiation and collaboration between public health observatories, other observatories, and potential international partners. Regional health observatories can already be found in many parts of Europe (France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland), and superficially these organisations seem to have much in common.

Thirdly, if the trend of labelling an increasing number of institutions “observatories” continues, then there is a danger of the title becoming clichéd and lacking in substance, which could detract from the value that the label “observatory” may lend to an institution. There has been a change in the language used for defining institutions: an old word …

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