What is Self-Care?

Self-care describes the role of individuals in preventing disease, managing their mental and physical health, and actively participating in their health care.

The concept of self-care was first recognised by the World Health Organisation in 1983. The definition of the term ‘self-care’ has evolved over time but the WHO’s 2013 definition is the most succinct:
who-emblem
“Self-care is the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, and maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.”

World Health Organisation - 2013

At the Australian Self-Care Alliance, we use the term self-care to describe both self-care capability (i.e., knowledge, skills, and confidence to effectively engage in self-care) and self-care activity (i.e., health behaviours and day-to-day activities that constitute self-care) of individuals.

Shared decision-making and individual self-efficacy are needed to enable self-care. Shared decision-making refers to health professionals and consumers working together to make health-related decisions. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s confidence to exert control to engage in self-care.

Individual self-care activities


First popularised by the International Self-Care Foundation, the Seven Pillars of Self-Care encompass the self-care activities that individuals can undertake on their own. We see them as a combination of self-care activities and capabilities:

Seven PIllars of Self-Care
Pillar One.

Knowledge and health literacy

includes the understanding of health and disease, the importance of healthy lifestyles and the causes of illness.

Pillar Two.

Mental wellbeing

includes a person’s level of self-awareness and their ‘agency’ – their capability and motivation to self-care.

Pillar Three.

Physical activity

 focuses on the need for, and benefit gained from, maintaining a healthy balanced diet.

Pillar Four.

Health eating

focuses on the need for, and benefit gained from, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

Pillar Five.

Risk avoidance

focuses on the steps individuals can take to avoid risks that are potentially harmful to their health.

Pillar Six.

Good hygiene

involves the benefits of good hygiene practices, which can both maintain health and help prevent the spread of diseases.

Pillar Seven.

Rational use of products and resources

including the use of self-care products and services in a responsible manner, helping individuals to safely and effectively manage their own health.

Beyond individual action

Self-care policy support

As a policy collaboration, the Australian Self-Care Alliance in interested not only in the activities of individuals but in the factors in the broader environment that can enable or inhibit self-care capabilities.

We think about self-care from two perspectives: one focused on the capacity of individuals to self-care, and another focused on how self-care is supported through policy and within the health system.

The Self-Care Matrix illustrates how self-care cannot be reduced to individual responsibility and should be supported by the health system and broader public health levers.

The Self-Care Matrix: a unifying framework for self-care
Self-care Matrix

The Case for Self-Care

Self-care is a cost-effective and logical approach that can reduce disease burden, improve health outcomes for all and ease the pressure on national health systems from preventable health conditions.

Prevention of chronic disease

Up to 80% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and over a third of cancers, could be prevented through evidence-based self-care by eliminating or reducing exposure to risks such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption. In Australia, this means that by 2025, an estimated 29,300 lives could be saved through the effective prevention of chronic disease.

Chronic disease management

Research suggests that enabling and promoting self-care across the population can improve health outcomes and physical functioning for people living with long-term chronic diseases, leading to improved clinical indicators, better symptom management and fewer hospital admissions. There is also growing evidence regarding the important role of self-care in managing mental health conditions and improving emotional well-being.

Infectious disease control

Lessons learned from the Covid- 19 Pandemic indicate the need to build resilient health systems by involving individuals and communities, institutions and structures in protecting health and optimising health outcomes. This requires informed self-care by individuals in concert with government-led population health and protection strategies, public health expert leadership and effective collaboration among researchers.

Healthcare cost containment

People who lack the skills to undertake self-care effectively incur higher healthcare costs. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australia spends more than $7,485 per person on healthcare each year. Expenditure on healthcare is projected to continue to rise faster than both the national income and personal incomes. Economic modelling that examined the cost-saving potential of self-care in Australia found that maximising self-care would save $1,300 – $7,515 per hospital patient per year, and significantly lower hospital readmission rates.

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