Health as a whole

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ 29 March 2022

This year’s World Health Day encompasses human wellbeing, not just the healing of sickness.

When we think of World Health Day (7 April) we may imagine hospitals with their many doctors, nurses and medicines. Appeals for health agencies often highlight places where these resources are lacking.

World Health Day this year takes a much broader view of health. It does not focus on the healing of sickness, though that is part of its concern, but on promoting good health. It identifies good health not with the absence of sickness but with human wellbeing. Its concern is to promote the conditions on which good health depends and to make them available to everyone.

This emphasis reflects many improvements already made in the health system. Hospitals and medical staff have increasingly focused their attention less exclusively on the doctors and nursing staff and have paid more attention to the patient. They have integrated pastoral care with medical processes, and see them as equally important for the patient’s return to health. Patients, too, are increasingly better informed and more effectively consulted about their condition and its treatment. The consultation involves communication between all the people concerned with the patient’s health – the doctors, nurses, and social workers. The medical staff recognise that the patient’s wellbeing is furthered by being respected as a person who participates actively in the choices involved in their treatment.

This development, too, reflects the growing recognition in our society that technology and medicines are an important part of modern life, but not a substitute for building respectful relationships. The technology and medication involved in treatment will be most helpful for people’s wellbeing only when it is guided by wise human beings and embodied in trusting relationships.

The theme of World Health Day, too, draws us beyond the health of individuals. Its goal is help develop a wellbeing society. This large goal gives a higher priority to preventative care than to therapeutic medicine. It asks why people are susceptible to illnesses and what can be done to prevent their falling ill. The underlying causes of illness often include traumatic experience in childhood, inadequate food, poor access to education, addiction, and other social factors.

To build an effective health system requires government policies to build such resources of early childhood care, family support and coordinated health centres. These are necessary to further the well-being of all in society, especially the most vulnerable. Research programs have shown how vital effective and coordinated programs are for the wellbeing of children and adults in areas marked by disadvantage.

The spread of coronavirus and the war in Ukraine have also shown us that sustainable health and wellbeing depend on cooperation between nations. Nothing is as destructive of health and of human wellbeing than war. In it people are killed and wounded, go hungry, lose connection with home, friends, family and with the natural environment, fear for their lives and future. Physical and mental illness abounds and often spread beyond the nations directly affected by war. Action to address climate change, the greatest challenge to human well-being of our time, also falters.

The themes of World Health Day may sound bland, but to be implemented they extend far beyond the hospital to all of the institutions of national and world societies.