Good health begins where you live, work, learn, and play. A whole-health approach looks beyond the walls of the doctor’s office to encompass all the behavioral, physical, and social drivers that influence individual and community health. Medical care accounts for just 10 to 20% of our health.
Taking a whole-health approach recognizes that well-being goes beyond the physical symptoms, diseases, and conditions that you might be experiencing right now. It’s also made up of all the factors that define your life every day: where you live, where you work, whether you have access to transportation, whether you’re caring for children or elderly parents, whether you have access to nutritious food, and everything in between.
If you’re forced to juggle two jobs, for example, it might be a challenge to find adequate, affordable childcare for your kids and ensure that they (and you) are eating well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep and emotional support. All those factors can have repercussions to your health.
Holistic care considers the physical, behavioral, and social needs of each person, working to ensure they can get individualized treatment and feel empowered to be an active participant in their health. Holistic approaches to health combine conventional medical practices with community partnerships and personalized outreach to help individuals achieve optimal levels of wellness — and address the barriers to health that have caused longstanding inequities.
What Factors Influence Whole Health
Multiple factors shape the health of individuals and communities. These factors are referred to as “drivers” of health — also known as determinants. The components of whole health include:
Physical Drivers of Health
The physical drivers of health are the structural and functional parts of the body, including bones, muscles, organs, and systems, that can be tested, measured, and treated in clinical settings. They are the elements traditionally associated with the delivery of healthcare, such as measuring vital signs, test results, and X-rays.
Physical health includes not just symptoms and conditions but also the preventive care that helps keep us healthy. Preventive care reduces risk of diseases, disabilities, and death; but only 8% of people over 35 receive all the high-priority, appropriate clinical preventive services recommended for them.
Behavioral Drivers of Health
Behavioral drivers of health are the genetic, familial, cultural, and societal factors that impact a person’s overall health and wellness. These include psychological factors such as mental health and substance use disorders, as well as reactions to external factors. Behavioral health is impacted by physical and social drivers of health and vice versa.
Behavioral health is just as important to overall health as physical health. When one is out of balance, the other is affected. One in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness; 5% experience serious mental illness. According to the CDC, depression increases the risk for many types of physical health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness. Individual behaviors such as smoking and drinking can also affect the length and quality of our lives. These drivers of health must be recognized and supported, and the stigmas associated with seeking behavioral healthcare reduced to underscore the message that behavioral health is health.
Social Drivers of Health
Social drivers of health include how and where a person lives and how they react to and interact with their community and physical environment. Social drivers that affect health include social activities, housing, food, communication skills, transportation access, income, and access to healthcare. Social drivers of health are impacted by behavioral and physical drivers of health — and vice versa.
For example, nearly 39.5 million people, or roughly 12% of the U.S. population, lack access to nutritious food because they live in an area where it’s difficult to buy that food. That has an impact on health: Individuals who experience food insecurity are more than twice as likely to report emergency department visits. Access to resources and a strong community support network are key drivers of health for all of us, no matter where we live.
Why Health Is More Than Healthcare
A personalized, whole-health approach focuses on prevention and health promotion in addition to treating symptoms and disease management. It starts with understanding the needs of each person, then applying those learnings across the entire health system and forging vital partnerships with communities and organizations to co-design and implement effective solutions across all the drivers of health.
The goal is to offer the right support, at the right place, at the right time. Understanding how the physical, behavioral, and social drivers of health impact well-being — and redefining health as more than healthcare — can lead to improved health outcomes for people and their communities.