Time for the WHO to Revisit Their Definition of Health?


Fifteen years ago the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed adding the word “spiritual” to the definition of health contained in their constitution – at the time, a significant change for an organization created to coordinate and improve medical and health services around the globe.

Sunday, April 7, World Health Day commemorates the creation of the WHO on that date in 1948. Since its inception, the WHO has defined health as:

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

In May 1983 – thirty years ago – twenty-two member countries proposed a draft resolution. It affirmed that the spiritual dimension is implicit in a concept of health and sought to have this spiritual dimension included in their Strategy for Health for All. This strategy was based on the concept of health for all by the year 2000.

In January 1998 the Executive Board adopted resolution EB 10 1.R2 recommending that the World Health Assembly add the word “spiritual” to the definition of health in the preamble to their constitution.¹ If passed, the definition would read: “a state of complete physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being…” But the resolution was not adopted by the general membership at that time.

In the ensuing fifteen years, society’s recognition of a spiritual component to health has increased.

In fact, the very next year, a 1999 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges defined spirituality this way:

“Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons.”

And more recently, we have these findings:

2002 – in the U.S.: The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine finds that prayer is the most used among the top ten CAM therapies.

2007 – in Australia: “Spirituality and religion belong in the healing paradigm, they are determinants of health and they are factors in recovery, well being and longevity.

2010 – in the U.K.: 95% of nurses surveyed by The Royal College of Nurses felt it was their job to identify a patient’s spiritual needs.

2011 – in the U.S.:  90% of medical school deans in the U.S. said their schools had courses or content on spirituality and health and indicated that patients emphasize spirituality in their coping and heath care.

2011 – in New Zealand:  “Research suggests that spirituality is an important aspect in providing well-rounded medical care, that it can be just ‘as important in many health initiatives as medication, hospitalization, or surgery’,…”

2012 – in Brazil: “The research on spirituality, religion and health has been increasing worldwide. Studies have shown an association between religious/spiritual beliefs and both mental and physical health…”

Of course, the connection between spirituality and health is really nothing new. Plato said, “the part can never be well unless the whole is well.”² And, before him, Bible scribes noted that if you have an understanding of, and trust in, the divine, “Your body will glow with health, your very bones will vibrate with life!”³

It would seem odd for medicine to be recognizing and incorporating the crucial role spirituality plays in health but for the WHO – an acknowledged leader on many medical fronts – to continue to exclude it from their definition of health.

Maybe it’s time for another vote!


¹ For more information see Spirituality in the Definition of Health The World Health Organization’s Point of View by M.H. Khayat. Note that in 1984 the World Health Assembly adopted resolution WHA37.13 which made the spiritual dimension a part of WHO member states’ strategies for health. But this did not change the definition of “health” in the WHO’s constitution.
² Charmides, or Temperance By Plato, Written 380 B.C.E, Translated by Benjamin Jowett
³ The Bible (The Message), Proverbs 3:8
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