Defining Health

Meaningful conversations exist because the individuals engaged are talking about the same thing. The congruency of thought is the only way for the back and forth between people to hold coherence. Definitions, when agreed upon, probably do more to enable these meaningful conversations among individuals who don’t know each other than any other factor. Definitions are important, and definitions do change.

Defining Health

In 1948, the World Health Organization defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The new definition was a drastic change at the time as it attempted to connect the individual’s physical, mental, and social factors into a single measure. Yet, criticisms of the definition have arisen for three primary reasons.

The need to be complete

  • Seeking “a state of complete” well-being pushes the application of treatment and medication to lower and lower threshold levels. This results in more medical treatments and the potential for increased dependency on the medical system.

The state of disease

  • In the 1940s and earlier, most people suffered acute diseases and chronic diseases often quickly led to death. Today more and more of the population lives with chronic diseases. Given the 1940s definition, these people could not have well-being. The definition does not allow them to adapt to the conditions that they find themselves in.

Utilizing the definition

  • How do you get to “a state of complete” well-being? Without clearly stating what complete well-being means, it becomes a challenge to apply the definition to actionable measures.

A New View

In 2011, Huber et al. proposed changing the definition of health to the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical, and emotional challenges. This change shifts the end goal from a preset idea of “complete” to the self-actualized measures of adapting and self-managing. This proposed change allows an individual’s actions to be part of the process and therefore implies that they have a role in evaluating and managing their health.

Why do I care?

I find this specific example worth sharing because most people probably care a little about health, and it’s a good outlet for highlighting three specific conceptual ideas frequently in my thoughts.

The biopyscosocial model

The idea of interactivity and dependencies between the physiological, psychological, and sociological aspects of an individual is applicable to any human assessment. Any process to change who you are requires consideration and effort toward each of these individual areas.

The individual has a role.

At a very fundamental level, our ability to evaluate and understand how a force beyond our control is affecting us is a power we may always have. This definition of health takes that power from those who declare what complete well-being is and gives it to the individual. Focusing on what element you can control in any situation can drastically improve your ability to engage with what is otherwise overwhelming.

Definitions lead to actions.

The whole Huber et al. 2011 article evaluates the implications of definitions. Definitions can change interpretations and that leads to a distinct set of actions. This may not be so impactful on the level of an individual, but when considering policy, definitions are tools that influence laws.

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