Health Care Thematic Programming


Virginia Adams O’Connell, Co-Director, IN FOCUS Center for Investigation
Kerry H. Cheever, Co-Director, IN FOCUS Center for Investigation

According to the World Health Organization, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity1.” While this definition attempts to address health beyond the basic functions of our bodies and include our mental and social well-being, it notably lacks reference to spiritual dimensions of well-being, and it fails to identify how we measure the “complete physical, mental and social well-being” of any individual or population or how different human communities throughout history have and continue to generate different definitions of what constitutes preferred dimensions of well-being.  For example, how do we define the desired human life in contemporary American society?  What physical factors would we include in that definition: life expectancy, height, weight, sexual prowess, athletic talents, eye color, hair color and thickness?  And what about our understanding of desired personal dispositions?   Do we generally want to be happy, calm, productive, focused?  What is the optimum mix of leaders and followers in a given population? 

Our general physical health impacts our ability to participate in the world.  But how much are we responsible for our health and how much are we products of our environments and our genetic inheritance?  How much are our heath and illness profiles influenced by our individual behaviors (eating habits, levels of exercise, etc.), how much are they influenced by our genes, and how much are they influenced by the structure of our social systems (city versus rural, environmental pollution, etc)?  How can we even begin to separate the inextricable connection between our personal decisions which must occur within the context of a wider social structure?  

How do nations across space and time manage the health profiles of their citizenry?  While individuals may be held responsible for personal choices that affect their health, what impact do government regulations on quality of the water supply, sanitation, housing, workplace safety regulations, food production, traffic safety, and regulation of alcohol and cigarettes have on the overall physical health profile of a population?  And what about our mental health and social well-being?  What personal behaviors improve our mental health and social well-being, and to what degree are these states of health provided by government actions which prevent discrimination, harassment and abuse, and inequality while also protecting our freedom of expression and religious faith? 

A culture’s definition and understanding of the human condition, its ideas about the balance of rights and responsibilities, and its particular system of production impact the scope and nature of its health care resources.  Is some functioning state of physical and mental health, and therefore access to food, housing and medicine, a basic human right, or are these goods and services something to be earned through participation in the capitalist system of production?  What are the intended and unintended consequences of supporting advancements in medical technology in a competitive system of capitalist research and development?  And once some life-saving or life-enhancing medical technology exists, is it only ethical to share that technology with all humans everywhere?  Since some threats to health are communicable, to what degree and under what conditions are we all interested in the health of our neighbors, both near and far?  And to what degree are we willing to mandate some state of health in the name of the greater good, even at the expense of individual choice? 

Will human beings ever be content with some overall state of health, or as we have already witnessed, does our drive for perfection decree that we will never be satisfied?  Will we always want to live longer, live “better,” be smarter, faster, stronger?  And how we will keep adapting to the toxic environment we create as we change our lives through technological developments?  We are currently witnessing an upsurge in the consumption of medical technology through the use of surgery and pharmacology as we strive to conform to our current physical, mental and social well-being standards.  How much more are we willing to do? 

The Moravian College community will take advantage of our focus on health and health care to explore these questions through a multidisciplinary lens.  Looking at the intersections of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences, we will investigate our understanding of what it means to be human.   We will explore how the sciences have provided an understanding of the structure, function and potential of our physical beings, and how different human communities have expressed their own particular understanding of those “facts” through the structure and function of human societies.    We will explore these questions both near and far, using the Lehigh Valley, the United States and the global community as our subjects for comparison.  We will reflect on our past, take a snapshot of our current understanding of health and benchmark standards of what constitutes healthiness, and ponder our collective next steps, remembering at every point of the analysis that in our contemplation of our physical, mental, spiritual, and social well-being, we are asking the most basic questions about our understanding of the human condition. 


1 Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June - 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. The definition has not been amended since 1948. (