A global conversation on defining health: Alex Jadad and Laura O’Grady

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In February of 2008 we dreamt of the possibility of publishing an article about the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of health to mark its 60th anniversary. Today, we were very pleased to see it published on bmj.com.

As we developed our piece, we tried to imagine the process through which the initial definition of health was created just six decades before.  We pictured in our minds a group of very serious and prominent men expressing their ideas in handwritten notes.

After much debate, a formal typewritten document was then circulated, perhaps becoming dog-eared by human touch. Like the writing of our article, this effort involved a small group of individuals, hoping to reach consensus with the aid of the most commonly available communication devices of their time.

During the ten months we spent working on this article, we used the most commonly available communication devices at our disposal. We typed the text using word processing applications on our laptop computers. We shared versions of the article by sending them on electronic mail messages via wireless networks. We used search engines on the web to locate supporting material, and discussed it during calls made with mobile phones.

We were awed to realise that most of these technologies were not even part of science fiction writing in the first half of the 20th century when the definition was written. These tools allowed us to transcend time and distance. They took us just as easily to the foundational documents of the WHO in the 1940s as to lectures describing the power of networks of networks of humans to change society in the future.

With support from the BMJ, we will now take our efforts one step further. Through our editorial and this blog, we invite anyone connected to the Internet, anywhere in the world to contribute to a global conversation about the definition of health.

We welcome contributions from readers interested in enhancing or replacing the work of our predecessors in 1948, as well as from those who think that it is impossible to define health.

All it takes to contribute to this global conversation is to click on the link labeled “Respond” below, clicking again on “Submit Comment” after completing the note.

Through this collaborative and iterative process we hope to spark debates and the sharing of ideas, ideas which may lead to a better understanding of what humans mean by ‘health’. We also hope to create the conditions that will allow future readers, including those who will live in a world many of us here today will not survive to see, to imagine how we did it with our primitive technology, and try to do better with their new found tools.

Alejandro R Jadad is professor at the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation; Department of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation; University of Toronto; and University Health Network, Toronto.

Laura O’Grady is a postdoctoral fellow, Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, Department of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation; University of Toronto; and University Health Network, Toronto.

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