Innovation in the Definition of Health



Article Written By Contributing UMR Author, Kate Scheffler

As the average life expectancy continues to rise in the U.S., an increase in the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease has been identified. With this shift in illness, the current definition of health has been deemed inadequate. At the 2013 TRANSFORM symposium held at the Mayo Civic Center, Dr. Alex Jadad, a physician and public advocate, spoke of his mission of enabling individuals to live health and happy lives. In an effort to understand the true meaning of health, Dr. Jadad confronted the issue by aiming to understand the question, “What is health?” In order to answer this question, Jadad had to reflect back in time.

In the 20th century, health was defined as the absence of disease. During this time, achieving the elimination of the disease was largely successful due to the efforts of public health. These efforts doubled the life expectancy of most low income countries by the turn of the century, but met a new challenge in doing so. As people began to live longer, they began to acquire and accumulate chronic, incurable diseases. With this new onset, people began to wonder, “Are we condemned to be unhealthy?”

When presented with this question, Dr. Jadad thought, “What should ‘health’ mean now?” In 2008, Dr. Jadad began a global conversation in an effort to re-imagine the meaning of health. With the support of the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development, an innovating definition of health was proposed. The new definition was based on the capacity of individuals or communities “to adapt and self-manage in the face of physical, mental or social challenges.” This innovating definition eliminated the word “disease” by focusing efforts on prevention and has been embraced by organizations worldwide.

As the definition of health continues to change, the use of wellness systems may be beneficial. This idea has been tested in a small town near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. With the appearance of a quaint town, Dimentiaville is anything but ordinary. Every person who populates the town has a different degree of dementia. In this town, the houses are similar to the ones in which the occupants grew up in. The setting is in the 1950’s and the residents are able to have a life of their own. They are able to go to the grocery store, the beauty parlor, or wherever they want. The catch is that every individual working in the town is a health professional, including social workers, nurses, and doctors. This wellness community allows people to live a full life by self-managing their illnesses.

As the definition of health continues to change, we must strive to make happiness a priority. Jadad believes happiness should be a factor throughout the entire life span, including the end of life. More than 50% of people will die in the hospital while less than 20% will die at home. Faced with these statistics, Jadad asks the question, “What would it take to change how we do things to ensure that we can live the longest and happiest life until we take our last breath?” In order to fully comprehend the meaning of words such as “health” and “wellness,” innovating approaches to the delivery of healthcare need to focus on not only patient care, but also patient experience.

Kate Scheffler

Kate Scheffler is a contributing writer from the University of Minnesota Rochester.











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