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What Does It Mean to be Healthy?

What Does It Mean to be Healthy?

In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health as “… a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” It’s a definition that’s been widely adopted, including by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but is it realistic?

After all, healthcare has advanced significantly in the past 70+ years — new treatments and technologies — which has led to improved chronic disease management and better health outcomes. And it’s made a significant difference in average life expectancy. For example, the average life expectancy for Americans in 1900 was 48 years. By 1950, the average had risen to 69.5 years. The latest CDC data (2017) puts the average at 78.6. 

The Evolution of Health & Wellness

These days, the absence of some diseases is taken for granted. Often-devastating childhood illnesses like polio and measles have been largely eradicated through vaccination. Likewise, vaccines are available to combat the flu and pneumonia, illnesses that can be particularly destructive among certain populations — very young children, older adults and individuals with chronic health conditions.

Additionally, advances in early detection, medications, technologies and treatment strategies for cancer, heart disease and diabetes make it possible for people to feel healthy — not because the disease is absent, but because it can be managed more effectively.

The concept of wellness has changed over time as well. No longer do people live by a motto of Benjamin Franklin’s day: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Some factors related to health and wellness are relatively universal:

  • Eating diets that are low in sugar, bad fats, and processed foods and high in vegetables, good fats and lean proteins.
  • Drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Avoiding unhealthy behaviors including excessive use of alcohol, smoking, sedentary — or alternatively, high-stress — lifestyles.
  • Exercising regularly — whether it’s walking 10,000 steps a day, working out at a fitness center or engaging in another type of physical activity.
  • Getting adequate sleep and maintaining a balanced schedule.

Of course, much of the above is easier said than done. As columnist Doug Larson has said, “Life expectancy would grow by leaps and bounds if green vegetables smelled as good as bacon.” But the tide has been shifting toward wellness since the 1960s as the fitness industry, nutrition science and laws banning smoking in public places expanded. 

Technology’s Role in Health & Wellness

As technological change has transformed how people work, communicate with each other and entertain themselves, attitudes about health and wellness have gone through transitions as well. Purposeful exercise like spin classes would have been a source of amusement pre-1960s. As The Medical Futurist notes in a recent article, “Just ask your grandpa whether he went out jogging when he was young. He would most probably laugh at you and tell you to do gardening or paint the fence around the house if you want some exercise....”

As technology eased physical burdens associated with work — think about how much easier and faster it is to mow your lawn today than 50 years ago — people had more freedom to engage in recreational activities. More recently, says the same article, “With the appearance of portable diagnostics, health sensors and wearables, not only the hospital but also the patient becomes the point of care.”

People have easy access to apps and devices can track their steps, count their calories, monitor their sleep patterns, practice meditation and manage stress. But, as the saying goes, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Motivating individuals to actively participate in their health and wellness journey requires better insights into how they approach the idea of being healthy. Psychographic segmentation can help move more people toward positive health outcomes.

What Psychographic Segmentation Tell Us

When it comes to health and wellness, people bring a range of different beliefs, expectations and preferences to the table. These attitudes, in turn, influence how they approach their own health and engage with healthcare providers.

Self-Achievers take a goal-oriented approach to health and wellness, but that doesn’t mean they are free of disease or infirmity. At the other end of the spectrum, Willful Endurers live for the moment and may be resistant to healthy lifestyle changes if they don’t fit into their routines. Other segments — Balance Seekers, Priority Jugglers, Direction Takers — have different takes on the definition of ‘healthy’ too.

  • Self-Achiever may define ‘healthy’ as well-controlled chronic conditions and continuous effort towards the goal of feeling good.
  • Balance Seekers may focus on alternative (non-medical) approaches to maintaining good health.
  • Priority Jugglers may concentrate their efforts to enable them to keep up with the demands of busy careers or family lives.
  • Direction Takers may rely heavily on the advice of medical professionals to guide them toward ‘healthy’ practices.
  • Willful Endurers may define ‘healthy’ as avoiding the doctor and not having to give up what they enjoy for the sake of health.

So, what does it mean to be healthy? Ultimately, no single definition of ‘healthy’ will be meaningful to all people. If healthcare providers, fitness businesses or wellness-focused organizations want to engage healthcare consumers in healthier lifestyles, they too will need to rethink the definition of ‘healthy’ and align communications to the distinct attitudes that people have about health and wellness.

For more on psychographic segmentation and how it can be used to improve health outcomes across all five segments, download our whitepaper.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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