The Definition of Public Health

Health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a state of full physical, emotional and social well being and not just the absence of sickness and infirmity. Various definitions have also been used over the years for different purposes. One school of thought maintains that health is the sum of happiness and the absence of misery. According to this school of thought, a person’s health is determined by what he or she does for a living and his values and standards in life. It is also said that the absence of ill health is the cause of ill-health. This definition, however, may be very broad and may also include the avoidance of negative situations such as abuse, violence, and death.


In addition, the first two definitions above are according to life courses. The third definition, the universal definition, is also taken from life courses. This means that it is the path an individual takes through life and what he or she ends up becoming. In this case, the illnesses of the individual’s childhood are taken into account. According to this third definition, childhood illness or disease do not become a part of a person’s life course; rather, they are a part of the individual’s normal process of development.

Of course, these definitions are not absolute. One could argue that absence of ill-health is an absolute since no disease can exist without any existence of sickness or vice versa. This line of thinking is further strengthened by the fact that, on the long term, people who are healthy can live longer and healthier lives than those who are sickly. Thus, one could maintain that good health is a path along which individuals can achieve greater depth of life and attain happiness.

The most useful way to conceptualize health is according to Wellness. This meaning is derived from the word ‘well’. It suggests a sense of balance, healthiness and the like. Accordingly, when individuals adopt a holistic approach to improving their state of health, they come to see wellness as a path with many points of intersections. Each of the intersections provides opportunities for individuals to grow, develop and progress towards their ultimate goal, which is well-being. It follows that the individual, by adopting a holistic approach, develops not just his body, mind and spirit, but also his relationships with other people, with nature, and with the world around him.

The definition of public health has been influenced by two important concepts. Firstly, the definition was altered by the Public Health Service (PHHS) in the UK in the mid-19th century. The aim of this governmental organization was to promote the wellbeing of the general population through all means. The second concept is that of mental wellbeing. According to this view, health refers to a person’s capacity to live his or her life well, and to be active in the pursuit of this goal.

It therefore follows that the definition of public health must take into account both concepts: that of promoting good health and that of managing disease. Good health implies a capacity to engage in a healthy life course; to control physical, emotional, social and mental aspects of life; and to flourish in a variety of environments. Managing disease, on the other hand, involves identifying, tracking and treating diseases, their causes and consequences over a period of time. A public health program focuses on the three aspects of well-being. These three elements have an impact on health through the three dimensions of life course: physical, emotional and social.