When my wife was going through rehabilitation after some brain surgery, one of the doctors in the rehab facility took us aside to discuss what he believed a good health outcome looked like – and it was completely different to what we were expecting. He believed a good outcome for her would be a limp, and potentially walking with a crutch. For us – that was totally unacceptable. For us, health was so much more.
When we are well, for most of us, our health is invisible – it is something we are aware of occasionally. Maybe when we are consuming a third donut (and our wife gives us that look), or when we get that bout of guilt that we haven’t left the couch all weekend, our health may come into our consciousness. However, in general, it remains in the background – something we can safely dismiss as a lower immediate concern – and something we will get to when we have time.
However, when something acute occurs – a sore knee, an anxiety attack, a medical diagnosis, a unusual finding on a mammogram or even a brain tumour – all of a sudden our health becomes front and centre. It becomes all encompassing, affecting our relationships, our finances and our work. It causes us to rethink what health means to us.
Most of us have experienced some degree of ill health – from a common cold, to severe and life changing illnesses. We can attest to the impact it has on all parts of our lives – and we start to understand how amazingly vital health is – when we have it. However, for most of us, the experience of traditional medicine and health, especially in serious situations, is far from optimal with the feeling of disconnect we have from our clinicians, the sense that we are misunderstood or not heard, and the impression that we are being treated at the organ level – rather than being understood as unique individuals.
For all the squabbling that makes the UN and its organisations a challenging and bureaucratic place, the WHO I believe, succeeded in created THE definition of health. And what I love about it, is not only that it is so contemporary and that 61 states agreed to this exact wording (can you imagine the bickering), but that it is unchanged since 1948.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
When we look at health beyond just the absence of disease, when we align the entire system to see a human being and not just a diseased organ (or two) – only then, will we achieve a health system the world has been advocating for, for the last 70 years. Only then will all consumers, including my wife, feel understood, aligned, and healthy (and limp free).
1. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948