According to AMERICAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION……THE HEALTH PROBLEMS OF greatest significance today are the chronic diseases. . . . The extent of chronic diseases, various disabling conditions, and the economic burden that they impose have been thoroughly documented. Health education and health educators will be expected to contribute to the reduction of the negative impact of such major health problems as heart disease, cancer, dental disease, mental illness and other neurological disturbances, obesity, accidents, and the adjustments necessary to a productive old age.
The new and unique role of health education in helping to meet these problems can perhaps be clarified through a review of some of the differences between procedures that have been successful in solving the problems of the acute communicable diseases and those that are available for coping with today’s problems.
HEALTH EDUCATION CONTENT TODAY
The preceding discussion of educational difficulties in coping with today’s health problems emphasizes the challenge with which health educators are faced. Let us look at a few implications of this challenge for educational content and method, and for the appropriate places to concentrate our effort.
If the challenge is to be met, most of the educational efforts must be concentrated upon adults outside the classroom where the problems may arise. It will not suffice to give students in grade school or even in college a body of the latest scientific information and expect them to use the information when they reach the age when chronic diseases are most prevalent. Such an expectation overlooks an important research finding in psychology—we forget rapidly information that is not functional in our daily lives.
But even if people did remember everything they learned in grade school or college, would the latest scientific information of today serve as guides to the behavior of students when they become older? Certainly everyone would hope not, for with the dynamic nature of medical research today, there is every indication that many of the tools for dealing with the diseases of today will become much more precise. If the limited information now available were remembered and used by students in later life, it might serve as a deterrent to the real action the students should take. . . .
What, then, should be the educational focus? Rather than concentrating on imparting an organized series of health facts, should the major emphasis not be on developing among students skill in solving health problems when they occur? In every school or college, some health situation is constantly arising in which individuals or groups must take action for their health. All too often, instructors decide upon the action to be taken without giving students the opportunity to gather information regarding the problem, to evaluate it, to develop their own solution, and to put these solutions into operation.
If, however, students have the experience of making the decisions, they will learn how to assemble pertinent facts from a variety of sources—a far more important achievement than that of having acquired an extensive body of knowledge about health. They will also have an opportunity to develop the ability to discriminate between reliable and unreliable information.This latter skill is particularly important at this time, for with the rapid advance of scientific discovery, it is often not easy to distinguish research achievement from the exorbitant claims of quacks or the overzealous desire for publicity on the part of a pseudoinvestigator.
One other aspect of the educational content of today’s health problems that should be considered is that the action which must be taken to deal with the present problems frequently conflicts with some of our traditional value systems. We have been a pioneering people, more concerned with advancing our economic welfare and that of the country than with the health and other hazards encountered in the pioneering effort. As a result, we tend to look with a certain amount of disdain upon the person who is concerned with avoiding danger, or who exercises reasonable caution in avoiding crippling injuries or disabling disease. Could it be that this value system accounts in part for lack of concern about the rules of health, dangerous conditions around the home, or for the tendency to take unnecessary risks in order to get somewhere in under-record time? Now that we are no longer pioneers in the sense that we do not need to take undue physical risks in order to progress, should we not consider a change in implied approval, if not outright praise, that our culture places on those who disregard the rules for health and safety? If society frowned upon taking unreasonable and unnecessary chances, it might be a real stimulus to positive action for controlling the ravages of chronic diseases and accidents. . . .
Excerpted from Mayhew Derryberry, “Today’s Health Problems and Health Education.” Public Health Reports. 1954;69:1224–1228. Reprinted with permission.