What is health? Sustainable Development Goal 3 in the UK

On World Health Day the World Health Organisation called on world leaders to live up to the pledges they made in 2015 when they agreed the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog The Health Foundation explore how to achieve Goal 3 and what we mean by health in the UK.  

As part of World Health Day, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called on world leaders to live up to the pledges they made in 2015 when they agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 3 aims to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. One of the priorities for the WHO is ensuring access to universal health care for all. While the UK is able to meet this already through access to the NHS the other targets within Goal 3 will be challenging to achieve and we are a long way off achieving healthy lives for all.

When comparing the healthy life expectancy at birth of people born in to the least and most deprived groups in England in 2014-16 there is a gap of over 18 years for both males and females.  

Evidence shows the lower a person’s socio-economic status, the worse their health is likely to be and that there is a social gradient in health across the spectrum of socio economic status.

While the health care system plays an important role in maintaining our health, a person’s opportunity for good health starts long before they need health care. And health inequalities arise because of the conditions in which people grow, live, work and age.

But what exactly is health?

There is no perfect definition, but the WHO suggests that ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Too often when discussing health in the UK people tend to default to the NHS. The SDGs offer an opportunity to reframe and widen the responsibility of health from health care systems to everyone. This is because good health affects us all, whether this is at an individual or societal level. Having a healthy population is vital in creating a vibrant and prosperous country. There is therefore is a compelling case that responsibility for the health of the public should go beyond the health and social care system to span all of society.

The relationship between health and other socio-economic factors is complex and multi-directional. If we are to ensure healthy lives for all we must tackle the socio-economic inequalities that underpin the social gradient of health.

This cannot be achieved through SDG3 and the health sector alone. It requires action from all sectors and progress to be made against all the SDGs, particularly action on poverty (SDG1), decent work and economic growth (SDG8) and reduced inequalities (SDG10). In turn, improving health outcomes has the potential to support activity across a number of the other SDGs. For example, evidence suggests that progress on Target 3.4, reducing mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), would have a role in determining the outcome of at least nine other SDGs. For example, reducing the mortality and morbidity from NCDs could lead to a rise in productivity and household incomes.

Achieving Goal 3 will not be easy and the UK Government cannot be complacent about the challenges it will face. There is no single intervention or policy that will make us all healthy. Solutions require all members of society to acknowledge the health impact of what they do and work together to take action. 

The Health Foundation is an independent charity committed to bringing about better health and health care for people in the UK. You can find out more about their work here.