Health Promotion 101: Decoding Public Health
You have probably heard of health promotion. You may know a little bit about it. You might think of it as a way to change behaviours through social marketing, for example. But did you know the “discipline” of health promotion is actually about so much more? The definition of health promotion is “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and improve their health”; what this means is we view health and our health systems in a broad way.
Health promotion is for everyone. It isn’t just about professionals in ivory towers telling us what to eat, or how much exercise to get, it is also about people taking meaningful actions like spending time with family, being in nature, taking control of the things we can do as individuals that can improve the health of our population overall.
But what does that even mean? Let’s start with a little history…
The release in 1974 of “A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians” aka the Lalonde report — resulted in a broader approach to health that emphasizes prevention of illness and promotion of good health and recognized that determinants of health exist outside the healthcare system. This means that when we think about health, we must consider determinants such as income, housing, food security, employment, among others.
Canada was next integral in the 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion — an international agreement signed at the First International Conference on Health Promotion — launching a series of actions and strategies to achieve ‘Health for All’; this charter remains the core foundation of health promotion.
Health Promotion is about creating positive health and keeping people healthy. It has a well-being focus that considers the world around us, and the context in which we live our lives. The aim is to address root causes of illness, not just treatment and cure, and puts a focus on the things that allow us to have good health — for example peace, shelter, income, meaningful relationships, healthy child development. Good health lives in our physical, mental, social, ecological, cultural and spiritual environment rather than solely within the healthcare system that focuses on treating people when they have become unwell or injured.
The way we enable everyone to increase control over their health is by working on key actions. These include things like advocating for and building healthy public policies, strengthening communities, fixing systems that create barriers for people and reforming and reorienting health systems toward prevention of illness and promotion of health. Health promotion draws on knowledge from many sources and collaboration across sectors.
Still, sometimes things are not in our control. About 75% of our overall health is determined by social factors, leading to health differences for people of different groups. This creates health inequities, which are systematic, avoidable, and unfair. This means in health promotion, one key focus is creating health equity.