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Thought Leader Uncategorized Global Health

Nothing Wrong With Brain Surgery, But …

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Michael Nyenhuis, President and CEO of MAP International

Here in Atlanta, we should take great pride in our strong schools of public health. Their faculty, researchers, students and alumni are at the front lines of tackling the world’s biggest health challenges.

Though pay scales and prestige do not suggest this, they are more valuable to global health than the highly-specialized physicians we tend to prize here in the U.S. (no offense meant to them).

To the detriment of many who live in the world’s poorest places, we have exported this focus on technologically-advanced, specialized health care focused on disease management rather than health promotion.

I recently read an article in the Guardian newspaper from London that confirmed this in a somewhat humorous way. The article highlighted a recent effort in Ghana to use  television programming to promote maternal and child health in the country.

The creator of the show realized that the Ghanaian health system – including its medical schools – were putting too much emphasis on specialized, treatment-focused medicine when what most people needed to improve their health was clean water, good sanitation and health education.

“When we went to speak to medical students, more than 50 percent wanted to be brain surgeons. I mean, how many operations are they going to do in Ghana as brain surgeons?” the show’s creator Kwesi Owusu told the Guardian. “We asked them why not specialize in public health, and they said, ‘Oh no, that’s for NGOs’ (non-profit agencies).”

Fighting against the pressure to understand the body as divided into its component parts and disconnected from economic, social and cultural influences are schools of public health. We have three of them in Atlanta where students can earn what should be a very prized and highly-regard degree – Masters in Public Health, or MPH – and other advanced degrees. They are Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, Morehouse School of Medicine and Georgia State University’s Institute of Public Health.

I met an Atlanta physician recently who is giving up her practice to go back to school to earn an MPH at Emory. She said the treatment-focused work of most medical practices does not address root causes of why people need treatment in the first place. She wanted to refocus her career there.

One of my own staff here at MAP International traveled that same journey years ago. He was a surgeon intent on setting up clinics in impoverished communities in Latin America – until he realized too many physicians were focused on treating disease and not enough were focused on promoting good health. He went back in earned an MPH and has dedicated his life to public health work.

Yes, it is important that we share our high-tech medical advancements with the rest of the world. They are needed. But we also need to share more stories like these to encourage students interested in medicine in places like Ghana that public health is even more valuable than brain surgery.

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