Understanding the Concept of Health

Health is a complex and dynamic concept that reflects the interactions of a person’s genetics, lifestyle and environment. It can be defined as the state of a person’s physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (WHO 1946).

A health status may be measured by life expectancy, disease risk factors, disability rates and the amount of physical activity. These measurements can be used to track trends and compare health outcomes within a population or between different populations.

The definition of ‘health’ is subject to debate, but most people agree that it is a complex term that includes a variety of factors ranging from personal choices to social and economic circumstances. Individuals have different health statuses at different times in their lives – and often go from one state to another.

There is a close relationship between health and the socioeconomic and environmental conditions in which people live, work and play (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008). Income, employment, education, family circumstances and early childhood, housing, social connections and support, and the environment, are all important factors influencing health. They also affect the quality of life of individuals and groups (Commission on Social Determinants of health 2010).

In the developed world, the medical model has been a dominant view of health. Physiological and medically-measured risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels and smoking rates are widely used as measures of health. However, it is increasingly recognised that a number of health-related issues are more complicated than these simple measures and require a holistic approach to the management of diseases.

The biopsychosocial model is an alternative to the medical model and is more comprehensive in its approach to health. The biopsychosocial model is more encompassing, and recognises the importance of non-medical factors in disease progression.

It is also more flexible and enables more effective management of chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke. It is a more inclusive and holistic approach that identifies the psychological, social and cultural factors that influence disease.

Health is a complex and dynamic concept that is constantly changing in the face of a multitude of internal and external influences, such as stress and changes in environment. The ability to resist these effects and cope with the stresses of everyday life is the essence of health.

While a ‘health’ state can vary over time and from individual to individual, most people consider the following as defining a healthy state: Not smoking; Having a good diet; Regular exercise; Low stress levels.

Using these factors as a measure of a health status will help to reduce the burden of illness and improve health outcomes in general. This is an area of research that is gaining momentum as healthcare professionals begin to appreciate the importance of a holistic approach to disease prevention and treatment.

The right to health is an inseparable part of the right to a fair and equitable standard of living. It implies a legal obligation on governments to ensure the requisite conditions for the enjoyment of health for all without discrimination. The right to health is included in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and in other internationally agreed human rights standards.