Health Promotion: Conceptual and Ethical Issues

Public Health Ethics 5 (2):101-103 (2012)
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Abstract

There is a large literature exploring the concept of ‘health promotion’. However, the meaning of the term remains unclear and contested. This is for at least two reasons. First, any definition of ‘health promotion’ is going to have to outline and defend an account of the notoriously controversial concept of ‘health’, and then suggest how (and why) we should promote it. Second, health promotion clearly has some overlap with ‘public health’, but it is far from clear how they are related. Is health promotion part of public health or is health promotion a radically different type of activity from public health? Answering this question requires engaging with tricky professional as well as contentious conceptual issues. Some advocates of health promotion talk as though public health is problematic: seen as medical, physiological in focus and reductionist in approach, whereas health promotion, on this view, is focused on the whole person in a social environment. However, to an outsider this looks more like an attempt to artificially (and rather crudely) define and protect professional boundaries, rather than a contribution to conceptual analysis. There seems no good reason why public health cannot take into account the role of social, political, economic and cultural factors and their impact on health. Indeed, much work in public health does precisely this, and uses a wide range of methodologies drawn from non-medical disciplines such as geography, sociology and psychology, not just epidemiology. It seems much more sensible to see health promotion as being one vitally important aspect of the work of public health, rather than something markedly distinct. We will assume here that this is the case and focus instead on the first issue: what is health promotion?

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