Physician Outlook

What is Health? Obstructions and Opportunities


Defined in 1948 by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” there is an invitation to see HEALTH in all things.

Visions of health conjure the vibrancy of youth, strength of muscle, beauty of environment. There are preconceived notions of what health is and, perhaps more so, of what health is not. Cultural expectations can create impossible standards, excluding many from the portrait of health for their appearance, habits and circumstances well beyond individual control.

The good news is, we cannot be separated from health. In the deepest moments of disease, health remains. As we transition through death, health continues. Health is the connective tissue of humanity, supporting each in their own space and offering relationship between.   

Defined in 1948 by the World Health Organization as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” there is progress in the picture of, and expectation for, health in medicine. Stepping beyond the simplicity (and what might be better seen as shortsightedness) of health being absence of disease, there is acknowledgement here of health beyond the body. Of the impact of the world on a person and vice versa.

One of the most widely referenced quotes from Andrew Taylor Still, founder of osteopathic medicine, notes, “To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease.” Expansion of this concept is an invitation to see health in all things, even if but a glimmer in a sea of disease. Noticing in the countless, consistent physiologic functions the presence of health. Honoring the capacity and desire of the person to return to a state of well-being. Seeing that health can have a wide variety of appearances and that all can be welcomed as enough.

When intervention is necessary and desired, approaching with an awareness of and love for health still serves. Offering support and listening for the response of the individual – verbally, physically, emotionally – is a true engagement with health. Engaging in therapeutic measures both within the physiology and between the person and their surroundings is true dedication to health. Removing obstructions is not applicable only to the structural, mechanical, musculoskeletal impedances but also to the broader environment.

This is the opportunity of medicine dedicated to the health of all things. To acknowledge all that contributes to the flourishing of health, and serving as a steward to enhance and encourage. To recognize all that interrupts the full expression of health, and acting as an arbiter to clear and clarify. Dr. Still reveals the ultimate potential, “When every part of the machine is correctly adjusted and in perfect harmony, health will hold dominion over the human organism by laws as natural and immutable as the laws of gravity.” The task is grand – correct adjustment for perfect harmony – but the prospect grander – health holding dominion. Sometimes we must simply, in concept if not so in action, get out of our own way.

There is much to be done within the body itself. There are endless opportunities for interruptions to the baseline of optimal health. Progress in research, expansion of knowledge, developments of intervention offer much to the world of modern medicine and the capacity for extended quality and quantity of life. None of this, however, supersedes the core of health in all of humanity. Holding space for the health that can be is where beautiful transformation occurs.

If outcomes do not match expectations or follow the planned course based on previous experience or evidence, looking through the lens of health all around can offer a perspective of promise. Reflect on the reminder from AT Still that, “Any variation from the health has a cause, and the cause has a location. It is the business of the osteopath to locate and remove it (the cause), doing away with disease and getting health instead.” While the integration of the musculoskeletal system and utilization of osteopathic manipulative treatment is unique in the training of D.O.s, there is invitation and opportunity for all physicians to remove obstructions to health.

Time, resources, genetics, relationships, season, stress – there are myriad elements hindering health.  While this can be a conduit for overwhelm, it is also a corridor for opportunity. When patients are struggling to see their own health, the physician can be a mirror. If the initial recommendation is not effective or easily implemented, the physician can serve as engineer. As hopelessness emerges, darkening any potential for resolution, the physician can hold perspective, noting that no change is required, while any can be welcomed.

A lengthy list of challenges means there is not one right way forward and that is actually good news. With multiple avenues in, the odds of accessing full health increase. Testing one or multiple remains ever an option. There may very well be a singular solution. It is entirely possible for adequate improvement to be made by addressing aspects of each. Remembering that these hindrances simply impact but never eliminate health is paramount.

Osteopathic medicine honors the omnipresence of health. All of medicine is invited to this approach. To see the health of all things. To notice obstructions. To acknowledge them as obstacles but not obliterations. To allow for health in all forms. To embrace opportunity to remove barriers. To engage in the work of nurturing health. To hold vision for health in all its versions, through every stage of life. 

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