What is health? According to the World Health Organization, “health is a condition of the body that indicates the presence of normal body functioning associated with age, gender, family history, and community, and appropriate measures are taken to protect the health of the population.” Various definitions have been used over the years for various purposes. In the United States, the National Health Service (NHS) defines health as, “the quality of the health of the individuals who provide it and the state of the public’s health.” The NHS also defines health education as, “the process of educating people about the need for healthy ways of living and the preventive measures against health disorders.”
In Canada, the Department of Health uses the phrase, “well-being” to define the overall state of health. It further describes health care as, “an essential component of the delivery of services.” The Department of Social Services in New Zealand uses the broader term, “healthy living” to describe a broader concept of health. In general, health systems try to provide high quality health care while considering the individual characteristics of each person.
One definition of health care that has been in practice since the US government began collecting data on health in the 1960s was to define it as the ability to experience minimal illness or injury resulting in the inability to carry out one of the essential functions of life. This broader definition has been adapted to a variety of situations and to different types of health systems. For instance, one might expect health systems to focus on preventative measures and outcomes rather than treatments for illness or injuries.
A more precise definition of health is the ability to experience minimal discomfort or illness arising from the conditions described above. The definition does not necessarily consider people’s emotions or their role in managing disease. Emotional well-being is more closely related to the process of achieving social well-being. The challenge therefore is to make health interventions that are designed to improve people’s emotional well-being without compromising their ability to be healthy and to function properly in their daily lives.
The definition of health provided by the Joint Commission on Quality in Health (Joint Commission) is, “the ability of individuals to manage well-established and realistic goals and to achieve reasonable levels of performance in health-related activities”. As J. Mark Gold, one of the founders of the commission, explained in his book, Making Health Management Work: A Practical Guide for Effective and Safe Health Care, joint management takes into account the interaction of health systems in the individuals’ life. Achieving this requires coordinating health systems within and across units with limited staff to ensure that all stakeholders are being equally supported and that standards of quality are being maintained at satisfactory levels.
The definition of public health further characterizes it as a description of a condition or situation that is of concern to the general public and considered as important for the protection of the community in which they live. It is a description of a condition or situation that does not have a good personal and/or economic impact on the individuals who are directly affected. An example of a public health condition could be the spread of infectious diseases or the existence of a serious environmental hazard such as toxic waste. The definition also indicates that it is not designed to provide management systems for individual health but rather for the community as a whole, taking into account the entire life course and its inter-relationships to ensure that the conditions and risks being faced by the public are managed in the interests of the entire community.