Thursday, October 18, 2007

Washington, 7-8 October
I was in Washington for the annual meeting of the
Institute of Medicine, to which I was (somewhat surprisingly to say the least) elected last year, along with my colleague Anne Mills (as there are only 84 foreign (non-US) members, we felt it was quite a nice surprise – and possibly a unique one- to have two elected from the same institution in a single year).
It was a rather imposing occasion, held at the National Academy of Sciences building just beside the State Department. The theme of the day was “Evidence-based medicine and the changing nature of health care.” It was at the same time interesting and depressing. Interesting, in that there were, as one would expect, some superb presentations. Depressing, in that so little seems to have changed in the US health system – at least in tackling some of the fundamental issues around quality of care - in the past two decades.
For me, the highlight was a paper by Elliott Fisher, from Dartmouth Medical School. You can listen to it
online and download the presentation on the IoM site. The key message was that there are still enormous geographical differences in per capita Medicare expenditure. What was most interesting was the comparison between high and low cost areas. Rates of clearly effective interventions (e.g. reperfusion within 12 hours and aspirin on admission with a myocardial infarct or pneumococcal immunisation) and of interventions where patients can decide whether they want treatment, after balancing risks and benefits (e.g. hip replacement and CABG) were essentially the same in both areas. What differed was the process of care, with those in the high cost areas having more inpatient days, more visits to specialists, and more investigations. Importantly, there were few differences in outcome and, in all cases, where they existed, outcomes were better in the low cost areas. What explained the difference? One major factor was the ratio of specialists to primary care providers, a finding that was unsurprising in the light of Barbara Starfield’s excellent work over many years. Over-specialisation has profound implications for the US health system. Any solution will be difficult, but I was taken by Elliott’s observation that if 30% of the medical workforce in the US was to move to Africa it would improve the health of the populations in both continents!
While I was there I was greatly privileged to meet this year’s recipient of the
Gates Award for Global Health, Mechai Viravaidya, the founder of the Thai Population and Community Development Association. The PCDA started out as an organisation providing family planning services to rural communities throughout Thailand that were not covered by government programmes. It worked through a network of village-based volunteers, with a strong emphasis on enabling women to take control of their own lives. When Thailand was confronted with the AIDS epidemic, it shifted gear. Mechai and his colleagues were the driving force behind a remarkable HIV prevention programme that is credited with much of the responsibility for an over seven-fold reduction in new infections between 1991 and 2003. Subsequently, it has expanded even further, into primary health care, water supply and sanitation, income-generation, environmental conservation, support for small-scale rural enterprises, and gender equality.
Listening to Mechai’s acceptance speech was one of those amazing occasions that will stay with me for ever. He took us on a remarkable journey, describing how the organisation had responded to emerging challenges. This is someone for whom there are no problems, only solutions. You felt that if anyone could sell snow to Eskimos, he could! He described how he had used humour to break down prejudices about sex, and in particular how he had tackled an unwillingness to use condoms. Indeed, in Thailand he is now often referred to as Mr Condom! He handed out T-shirts showing multiple sexual activities, each stating whether a condom was needed or not. He told us how his team worked to support young girls in rural areas who were being lured into the sex industry. And he told us how they had supported small scale enterprises so that villages could become economically self-sufficient, with benefits for health and education.
This was a truly humbling occasion – a quite remarkable man and a very well deserved recipient of this prestigious award.

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