Definition of disease and health

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For a number of years, the SAMS and the Swiss Science Council (SSC) have been working on the changing understanding of health and disease, and its impact on society and medicine. The publication «Patient, doctor, big data. Who has the power of definition» is the result of a joint workshop, which offers an overview of some of the issues related to this vast topic.

In 1999, the SAMS launched the project «Future of medicine in Switzerland». In this context, the Academy found that, while it could define medicine, no consensus could be reached on the definition of health. A few years later, the SAMS found itself confronted with this unresolved issue within the framework of the project «Sustainable Healthcare System» conducted together with the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences.


For its part, the SSC chose as an overarching theme of its 2016–2019 Working Programme the «Contours of the human in health and illness», grounded on the conviction that any understanding of health relies on assumptions pertaining to the human condition.


The idea of a joint workshop arose from the shared interest of the two institutions. The event, held in Bern on 18 April 2018, sought to review the initial results of these reflections and, with the help of experts from various fields, to identify the most relevant challenges for Switzerland.


Attention was focused, in particular, on whether the current notions of health and disease need to change to adapt to the age of big data and artificial intelligence, and who should play which role to support both science and society in this process. The discussions revolved around three perspectives on health: health as conceived through scientific data, health as defined by professionals, and health understood as a public good. In each case, the intention was to consider patients’ viewpoints and interests as a central element.


A trilingual (English/French/German) report on the workshop was published in 2019.





lic. phil. Valérie Clerc
Secretary General
Tel. +41 31 306 92 71