Health – A Concept That Can Be Difficult to Define

Health is a difficult concept to define. It is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The word is also used to describe the outcome of a medical procedure. It can even be framed in a statistic, such as the percentage of people who survived a particular illness.

What is health?

A lot of the time when people talk about health, they mean being free from disease. While this makes sense for many people, it is important to recognise that health is not only the absence of disease, but also the presence of good mental and physical wellbeing.

Another important aspect of health is pragmatism. This means that health needs to be seen as a dynamic phenomenon, and not as a fixed state of being. For example, a person may be healthy in their everyday environment but become unhealthy when they move to a high altitude. This is because the environment has a different oxygen content, which can affect their breathing and cause illness.

Unfortunately, medical research has a tendency to focus on diseases, rather than on the concept of health. This is reflected in the name of some institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health, which reflect this disease focused approach. As a result, there is a general lack of understanding about what health really means.

Why is health important?

In the modern world health is recognised as an important social and economic asset. Most developed industrial countries have a publicly funded universal healthcare system that provides free or subsidized medical care for all. Many also provide a range of other services that are designed to promote and protect good health such as exercise programmes, diet counselling, smoking cessation programs and primary care physicians and nurses.

Some definitions of health focus on aspiration and potential, whereas others are more functional or mechanistic. For example, the 1948 WHO definition states that ‘health is a state of complete physical and mental well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

However, the requirement for complete well-being is problematic as it encourages medical technologies to detect anomalies that would otherwise go unnoticed and pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs for every possible ill. Furthermore, a person’s perception of their health is determined by the values they hold and these are shaped throughout life by a variety of factors such as parents, friends, schools, media, laws, and one’s own personal experiences.