The creation of national health systems providing free care was one of the most remarkable social innovations of the 20th century. We take them so much for granted in countries that have them that it is easy to forget just how radical the idea was when they were first set up.

Built on the biomedical model “which views people as individuals and responds when they’re sick (treatment) or likely to become sick (prevention)”, these systems are now almost victims of their own success, especially in relation to treatment; finding themselves under considerable challenges, confronted with exponential demand and ever constrained supply.

Recently groups of people around the world have begun to explore ways of ensuring the survival of these very important public institutions by looking beyond the confines of this model, moving beyond the walls towards a fundamentally different conception of health.  This approach asks what it takes to keep people well by supporting and developing systems and processes that enable people to live fulfilled and satisfying lives.

Those of us involved in this approach are discovering that this preferred future in many ways already exists in our present, but at the margins of it.  We are discovering examples of communities and social innovators taking action on issues of concern to them; for example supporting people to find employment, putting a stop to anti-social behaviour like the proliferation of alcohol retail outlets, organising for facilities in a community that has long been under resourced and so on.

In this approach health is an emergent and self-organising property of communities where people are taking action to support initiatives and endeavours that give them a sense of dignity, meaning and community. Health becomes an indirect consequence of this social movement and addresses the demand side of the challenge faced by public health systems.

This link is to a series called ‘Communities Creating Health’, published by Stanford Social Innovation Review in collaboration with the Creating Health Collaborative. The series co-curators, Pritpal S. Tamber, Bridget B. Kelly, and Leigh Carroll, present 19 articles that showcase inspiring stories, useful tools, and emerging strategies to develop this new approach to health.