Category Archives: Public Health

In my mind, it is a subset of Global Health, often more locally focused.

Potential living-donors should have no choice

I recently learned three interesting and disturbing facts. First, I have a distant, 5 year old relative with liver failure. He will be dead within weeks unless a suitable liver donor is found. Second the lobe from a living adult’s liver can be used to save his life. Third, I am a match. I learned these things when I was received notification from the National Transplant Registry. They also informed me when the surgery will take place, when I am to arrive at the hospital, and that I have no choice. I will be donating a lobe of my liver. It was the first time I knew about any of this.

Unless you have no choice about being the means to someone else’s ends.

Apparently my life is my own, except when it isn’t. The life of my young relative is so precious, so important, that my wishes are of no consequence. I am the vessel for his survival. I am the means to his ends but not to my own.

You can imagine how outraged I feel. I don’t feel outrage about his need, but about my lack of agency — my lack of control over my own body.

This is, of course, nonsense. Hyperbole if you like. There is no transplant registry in the world that can mandate surgery; there is no country in the world where one person’s body is just the means for supporting the life of another.

Unless you are a woman.

All over the world, as a matter of law, women are obliged to make their bodies available as the means to another’s end. In many countries, to withdraw the service is a criminal offence, resulting, in substantial jail terms. We call this protecting the right to life. They call it an unwanted pregnancy.

Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states inter alia that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” I am the means to my own ends and I can choose when to be the means to another’s ends. Being held in servitude is being forced, for however limited a duration, to be the means to another’s ends. It is a rights violation whether it is a requirement to give up a part of your liver to save another, or to provide rental space in your abdomen.

Public Health is not a specialisation of medicine

Medicine saves lives one at a time. Public Health saves lives by the millions.

In many countries, the guilds of the medical fraternity provide for specialist membership. Attached to membership is prestige, promotion, and increased earning potential. In almost all cases, membership or fellowship of one of these guilds, typically titled “Colleges”, indicates increased expertise in the management of classes of disease in individual patients.

If you have diabetes, atrial fibrillation, Parkinson’s disease, major depression, etc., or you need more or less specialised surgery, you may well want to consult a member of one of these guilds of medicine.

 

Vaccination programs are critical to Public Health, but they do not require a medical specialisation in Public Health. [Image source: pixnio.com]

The focus of Public Health is the protection and improvement of the health of populations. The breadth of public health practice is enormous with individuals working in disease specific areas (e.g., HIV, TB, or mental health); settings (e.g., schools, workplaces, markets); social policy areas of the social determinants of health; health systems; health financing and market regulation; urban design; and health data analytics, to name just a few. Although there are commonalities between them, Public Health may be contrasted with Community Medicine and Social Medicine by the fact that Public Health practitioners do not spend their time treating individual patients, although they may guide services for the better and more efficient treatment of populations of patients.

The most significant distinction is that Public Health draws its expertise from a wide range of disciplines: behavioural sciences, nursing, management, geography, history, politics, anthropology, environmental sciences, urban planning, sociology, pharmacy, economics, biostatistics, microbiology, ecology, mathematics, parasitology, computer science, entomology, engineering, veterinary science, … and medicine. Some of the best public health people I have ever worked with have come from history and geography. It is not that history and geography are peculiarly crucial to Public Health. It is that good Public Health requires interdisciplinary teams that can bring new perspectives to problems. It is relatively unusual to find historians and geographers in Public Health, so they bring novel solutions that are quite different from those one might otherwise see.

Postgraduate Public Health training, such as a Masters of Public Health (MPH), is a useful way of providing the diverse disciplines involved in Public Health a common language with which to share problems, ideas, and solutions. There is no one best discipline for Public Health, and there is no reason that one has to study Public Health formally to make a valuable contribution to Public Health practice. I speak here as a person who has no formal qualification in Public Health but one who has been a Professor of Public Health, has lead Public Health teams, and has advised governments, UN agencies and international NGOs on Public Health.

I return to my titular point. Public Health benefits enormously from the input of people with a diverse range of qualifications. What then is the purpose of a medical specialisation in Public Health, if Public Health is not a branch of medicine?

The answer is historical and political. The historical answer is that Public Health is traditionally located within the Ministry of Health (MOH). There is a logic to this. So much of the practice of Public Health is about the coordination, regulation and efficient delivery of health services that it must be coordinated with MOH activities. The obvious down-side of this historical location of Public Health is that, as it has become increasingly evident that population health problems require whole of government approaches, any attempts to transcend the departmental pillars of government are regarded by other Ministries as a MOH power-grab.

Politically, power within MOH is typically vested in people with membership in one of the specialist guilds of medicine. The only way for Public Health to have status in MOH (and let’s face it, Public Health has never been as sexy as clinical medicine) is for it to be lead by people with a medical qualification and membership of a specialist guild. Thus, specialist guilds of Public Health medicine were born.

This historical and political strategy protected the status of Public Health within MOH. It provided a career pathway for medically qualified personnel interested in pursuing a career in Public Health. Unfortunately, it also limited the capacity of Public Health practice to deliver the best population health outcomes.

Governments need to improve the way they approach the protection, promotion and improvement of the health of their populations. A good start is to recognise that medicine is a part of the practice of Public Health (just as history, geography, etc. are), but Public Health is much bigger than a specialisation of medicine.

Donald Trump’s BMI: getting the measure of the man.

I find myself fascinated by a pointless lie because it is inescapably tragic. All it can do is diminish the person in the eyes of others. And this brings us to Donald Trump’s height. In January 2018, the Physician to the President, Ronny L. Jackson MD asserted that Donald Trump was 6’3″ tall (1.90m). This is so unlikely to be true, that it stretches credulity. There is no reason for Jackson to lie spontaneously about a patient’s height, and it seems probable that he was encouraged to add a few inches by the President himself.

When asked to self report height both men and women in the US tend to overstate it.  Burke and Carman have suggested that overstating height is motivated by social desirability — you can never be too tall. There is ample evidence of Donald Trump’s (misplaced) search for the socially desirable with respect to his hair, his tan, his ethnicity, his intelligence and now his height.

In 2018 we learnt that Donald Trump was officially not quite Obese (body mass index (BMI) <30), and in 2019 he had nudged over the line into the obese range (BMI 30). Overstating height creates a problem in the calculation of BMI — which is mass (in kilograms) divided by height (in meters squared). Given that Donald Trump is likely shorter than 1.9m (6’3″), and probably closer to 1.854m (6’1″) this will have implications for whether he was really obese in 2018 (not just overweight as stated by his Physician) and just how obese he probably is (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Donald Trump’s BMI in 2018 and 2019 given different assumptions about his height [R-code here].

In 2018 Donald trump was just below the obese category if and only if he was really 6’3″ (1.9m) tall.  At any height less than that he was obese in 2018 and he is obese today.  His most likely true height given comparisons with others (cf, Barack Obama) is 6’1″, and this puts him comfortably in the obese range.

Misrepresenting one’s height does not create a problem if the lie is reserved for others — except perhaps in a political sense. Problems arise if one deludes oneself. Telling others that you are taller and healthier than you really are is one thing; if you lie to yourself you cannot properly manage your health.

 

 

 

Play with Big Tobacco and you will be tarred

Philip Morris International (PMI), profits by selling the world’s leading cause of preventable death — tobacco. The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) recently handed PMI a public relations coup by accepting a $1 Billion donation. Who now could credibly work with FSFW?

PMI is the world’s largest, international tobacco company.  It is quite explicitly not interested in a tobacco-free world and it works hard and secretly to subvert tobacco control. Its raison d’être is the sale of tobacco products, and the “smoke-free world” cover provided by FSFW looks like a Big Tobacco tactic in a long line of them.

There is little doubt that FSFW as an organisation has placed itself in moral jeopardy by accepting PMI’s money: “Moral jeopardy occurs when a person or an organisation attempts to do good using resources from a source that involves harm.” And here is the rub.  One of FSFW’s stated goals is to support global research through the support of “Centers of Excellence”.  Any research group, however, that accepts FSFW money is exposing itself to moral jeopardy. And like other health and medical research outputs from conflicted industry sources, the results cannot be trusted — no matter how genuine the researchers are in their belief of independence.

PMI’s money laundering scheme for researchers may provide a scent of freshness, but the tobacco tar will stick.