Dr. Phil Hammond’s definition of health

Dr. Phil Hammond was on Channel 4’s Countdown a couple of weeks back. (I’ve been getting back into Countdown recently. As anyone who watched my TEDx talk will know, me and Countdown go way back…)

I confess that I didn’t know much about Dr. Phil Hammond before those couple of days in Dictionary Corner. At first, I thought the UK’s Dr. Phil and the USA’s Dr. Phil were one and the same.

You’re right, I need to get out more.

The UK’s Dr. Phil is listed on his Wikipedia as a physician, broadcaster, comedian and commentator on health issues in the UK. His appearances on Countdown were a decent opportunity for him to get in some early canvassing for his forthcoming general election bid, whenever that takes place.

But it’s hard to disagree with much he’s saying, and I found his thoughts on health, and in particular the definition of health, very interesting.

He said:

We spend trillions on this planet on health and very rarely do we define it.

The National Health Service has its own constitution that doesn’t define “health”. So we spend £120 billion a year serving something that isn’t defined, which seems to be ridiculous to me.

If you go back to 1948 and the start of the NHS, the World Health Organisation, which was formed roughly around that time, came up with their definition of health, and that wasn’t just the complete absence of disease and disability, but a complete state of physical, psychological and social wellbeing (which one famous doctor said you only ever achieve fleetingly through opium and orgasm).

[The WHO definition] set the bar very high. If you were to say we all had to be completely rid of disease and disability, and we have to have a complete state of physical, psychological and social wellbeing, that means none of us are ever going to be healthy.

So we clearly need a definition that’s better than that. And the definition that I particularly like is “health is your freedom to live a life that you have reason to value“.

Now that requires a bit of self-work. You have to think about your values, and what matters to you. But it also means that you can have any number of diseases and still be healthy, if you have a life you have reason to value.

I talk about a chap called Miles Hilton-Barber, who it’s been my great privilege to meet. He was born with a hereditary condition and he knew fairly early on he was going to turn completely blind. And he went through a period of feeling really sorry for himself. And then he said, “No, I’m going to make the most of my one world and precious life.”

He says the only limits are the limits of your imagination. He does quite extraordinary stuff. He skydives, he goes up and down mountains, his calling card is him pushing his mate, who I think was hurt in Bosnia and has no legs. And he’s pushing him a wheelchair across the floor of the Dead Sea wearing aqualungs. They do this really really extraordinary stuff.

So I think it’s very important that we don’t judge what other people’s health is.

Think about the social determinants of health and think particularly that health is living a life that you have reason to value.

[In health, what are aim should be is] more people living lives that they have reason to value.


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