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Positive Health

"Health as the ability to adapt and self-manage, in light of the physical, emotional and social challenges of life".

This new definition of health, developed and tested by Louis Bolk Institute researchers Machteld Huber and Marja van Vliet, marks a significant departure from the World Health Organisation's definition of health. The latter defines health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'. When this definition was coined in 1948, infectious diseases were the main problem. Today, however, chronic and lifestyle diseases are much more prevalent, particularly in the Western world.
The way in which 'health' is defined has a significant influence on how we organize and use health care. The requirement of 'complete well-being' in the WHO definition has unintentionally contributed to medicalisation: 95% of the present healthcare budget is spent on medication and intervention. Due to this focus, patients and healthcare providers often overlook other options for leading a high-quality, meaningful life with an illness.

Concept of positive health embraced by health care sector

The term "positive health" is derived from the new health concept. It stands for a broad view on health, in which health is no longer considered as a static condition but rather as the dynamic ability to adapt and to manage one's own well-being. Research by Huber and Van Vliet has shown that patients consider these abilities very relevant. By shifting the emphasis to resilience and well-being (rather than ill-health), the new health concept helps policy makers and politicians to change their thinking about health care and disease prevention. This change is urgently needed if we are to maintain high quality care that is also affordable.

Huber and Van Vliet recently published an article on Positive Health in the international scientific journal British Medical Journal Open (2016). In addition to medical conditions such as physical ailments and disabilities, the concept of Positive Health also covers dimensions such as social participation, quality of life and daily functioning. Hence it considers not only medical treatment but also options for making better use of patients' abilities to cope, adapt and self-manage. 

Read the article in the Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde (2016, in Dutch) in which Huber, Van Vliet and Boers give their view on Positive Health. 

Read the interview with Dr Huber on positive health, published in the Dutch weekly news magazine Elsevier (August 2013, in Dutch)

Research Award

This project was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw). ZonMw also awarded Dr Huber the prestigious ZonMw Parel research award for her work. 

Watch the interview with Dr Huber (in Dutch, with English subtitles).


Project leader

Herman van Wietmarschen

Researcher Nutrition & Health