Understanding the Meaning of Health

The World Health Organization’s Constitution, which became effective on April 7, 1948, defines health as “a state of whole bodily, mental, and social well-being.” The Constitution’s framers were well aware of the tendency to view health as a state determined by the presence or absence of diseases; thus, they added to that definition that an individual must be free of disease in order to be considered healthy (….”and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”).Three distinct definitions of health appear to exist and are utilized today. The first is that health is defined as the absence of sickness or disability. The second is that health is a condition of being that enables an individual to adequately meet all of life’s obligations (implying also the absence of disease and impairment). According to the third definition, health is a condition of balance, one that an individual has achieved both inside himself and with his social and physical environment.

Adopting one of these meanings has significant implications. If health is defined as the absence of sickness, then only the medical profession has the authority to declare a person healthy. Individuals who are certified healthy now may be proven to be unwell tomorrow as more improved methods of research uncover symptoms of previously undiagnosed diseases. In this health paradigm, it is irrelevant how an individual feels about his or her state. How others perceive an individual’s behavior and appearance is meaningful only if their views match the medical profession’s abnormality criteria. The assessment of a population’s health status is also straightforward, requiring only the counting of persons who exhibit defined symptoms of sickness during examination and comparing their numbers to those who do not.

The enormous issues confronting nations seeking to enhance their citizens’ health will not be adequately addressed until we shift our understanding of health and disease and develop strategies for future work based on these new paradigms. Their formulation and adoption is a critical duty for everyone of us.

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