Talking about health = talking about prevention

Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed

By Dr. Gaynor Watson-Creed, Medical Officer of Health

When we think of health, we often think of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. It is associated with symbols like white coats, uniforms, stethoscopes, big buildings, beds and ambulances.

By comparison, preventive medicine, care provided by primary and public health to help prevent us from getting sick or effectively managing conditions, has no symbol. As a result, preventive work is often not included when we talk about health. Prevention includes:

  • Taking action to prevent risk factors from becoming disease (e.g. “Are you smoking? We can help you to stop.”)
  • Dealing with risk factors that may have already caused disease (e.g. screening programs that allow us to detect disease and take action to cure it or prevent it from worsening).
  • Treating disease and risk factors to prevent the worst possible outcomes (e.g. managing diabetes to prevent limb loss or death).

Most forgotten is the “far upstream” prevention, done by public health, also known as primordial prevention.

It is about preventing risk factors from existing in the first place and tackling them where they are created – in our society.

Example: Unhealthy eating is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In primary prevention, we address this by counselling people to choose healthy foods over unhealthy ones.

Nutritionists, nurses, physicians and many other health professionals regularly make this recommendation.  And while patients understand the advice, many people still struggle to eat healthy – often because healthy foods simply aren’t available, affordable and accessible.

To understand why this happens, we have to ask several more questions: Where does unhealthy food come from? Why is there so much of it? Why is there less healthy food? Are there ways we can increase the availability of healthy food?  And who are the players who can make a difference?

The great news is there are many important players who can help make a difference:  growers; vendors; municipal planners and engineers who decide on regulations that impact where grocery stores are in our communities; and developers who design and build communities. They each have some responsibility for ensuring that healthy food exists in our communities – and public health regularly takes this conversation to these tables.

The even better news is that many of these groups already understand the importance of healthy eating and the role they play – they were talking about health long before we joined them in their conversations and, with our ongoing support and encouragement, they tell us they are keen to continue.

While prevention (in all forms) may look and sound different from what we traditionally deem as health symbols, it’s crucial that prevention start and continue to be a part of our health conversations. Making changes in our society can make a positive difference for our health. What’s important to you?