Most doctors will tell you prevention is key to managing your own health and well-being. But how much can an individual really do to address the underlying causes of disease or illness? Healthy diet and exercise only go so far, and many other factors lie outside the scope of personal control.
This limited ability to control our own health demonstrates the need for a greater understanding of health and wellness. World health trends point to the effects of a globalized economy, advances in transportation, and changes to agricultural practices and how they have made health care issues transcend international borders. Doctors can no longer focus exclusively on their local communities when diseases from across the world can easily end up in their hometown clinics.
Finding a solution requires a collective effort from people in a variety of disciplines. This is where the conversation of global health begins.
So, how can individual medical doctors and family physicians do their part to influence that prevention effort on a global scale? The first step is understanding what global health is, and how other factors influence the field of medicine.
What is global health?
Global health is the understanding of health care in an international and interdisciplinary context. It includes the study, research, and practice of medicine with a focus on improving health and health care equity for populations worldwide. Global health initiatives take into account both medical and non-medical disciplines, such as epidemiology, sociology, economic disparities, public policy, environmental factors, cultural studies, etc.
One of the most prominent agencies focused on advancing global health is the World Health Organization (WHO), but this agency is not alone. Researchers and leaders in a variety of fields are spearheading initiatives that form alliances between historically disassociated fields.
Dr. Calum Macpherson, vice provost for international program development at St. George's University, describes the The One Health One Medicine Initiative as the convergence of human, animal, and ecosystem health.
“Each of these practices are inextricably connected,” Macpherson explains. “By learning from each other and pooling resources, great progress can be made for the benefit of human and animal kind.”
6 Prominent global health issues to be aware of
So what are the biggest challenges confronting organizations like WHO and the One Health One Medicine Initiative? The list goes on and on, but some epitomize the breadth and depth of this complex field.
Simply put, pandemics are global disease outbreaks. Examples of pandemics include HIV, influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, and other viral threats that reflect our vulnerability to widespread diseases – many of which originate in animals.
Every year there are newly emerging pandemic threats that cannot be solved, and diagnosing symptoms may only occur after an individual is already infected. These issues must be cut off at the source by addressing important areas like health education, responsible agricultural practices, and the issues that cause viruses to spread.
2. Environmental factors
Growing concerns about the environment center on climate change and air pollution. But how will these challenges directly affect the health of the human population? In most cases, the answer lies in water sources and sanitation.
When basic survival needs are disrupted by devastating storms, flooding, droughts, and air pollution, diseases are more easily spread across large groups of people. The immediate solution is to provide resources like bottled water, sanitation technology and education, but global health must also focus on the prevention of environmental challenges in the first place.
“Climate change is thought by many global health experts to be the greatest threat to human health,” Macpherson says. “Global policies to mitigate mankind’s contribution to climate change are gaining traction.”
He points to legislation in China, India, the US, and many European countries as evidence of this. They are introducing policies that regulate current vehicle use and individual household energy consumption on a large scale while encouraging industry progress toward environmentally conscious practices.
“Such changes will have profound health benefits for those who live in urban centers, which account for more than 50 percent of the world’s population,” Macpherson explains. “[They] cannot be implemented soon enough.”
3. Economic disparities and access to health care
Despite relentless progress in the field of medicine, communities across the world still lack access to basic health education and health care. As a result, they face harsh realities in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), high child mortality rates, and basic nutrition. These are all issues that could be alleviated by reducing the disparities that isolate these populations.
Some of these disparities are related to geography, with rural communities facing the greatest shortage of physicians. Other disparities are the result of income inequality, with individuals and families simply unable to afford health care that is otherwise unavailable.
To solve these economic challenges, global health professionals must explore opportunities to uplift underrepresented communities in public health forums, encourage physicians to practice in remote areas, and introduce policies that reduce barriers and increase access to health care.
4. Political factors
Inadequate access to health care is exacerbated when international politics enter the mix. As conflicts within or between nations destroy critical infrastructures for transportation, water, sanitation, and waste, average citizens become more vulnerable to diseases. This leads them to seek opportunities to flee the dangerous situations that threaten their well-being.
Refugee migration can allow illnesses to quickly spread, but organizations like the WHO stress that the solution is not to simply isolate these large groups of people. Instead, they focus on improving refugee health care access by organizing efforts across borders to endorse policies that bridge short-term humanitarian crisis responses with long-term health care access improvements.
5. Noncommunicable diseases
Heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes – these and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) account for 70 percent of all deaths worldwide. They can be attributed to genetic, physiological, environmental, and behavioral factors.
Education plays a role in the prevention of NCDs, helping populations understand and change lifestyle factors such as poor diets, inactivity, tobacco use, or alcohol consumption. But there is also a correlation between income level and the prevalence of NCDs.
Nearly three-quarters of NCD-related deaths worldwide occur in low- and middle-income countries. Reducing the number of NCDs globally means reducing the factors that disproportionately arise in lower-income communities.
6. Animal health, food sourcing, and supply
Animal health is naturally intertwined with humans’. Perhaps the clearest connection occurs within the food chain, as humans grow, process, and consume food on a large scale. But in developing areas, animals are also relied upon for transportation, draught power, and clothing. In these communities, animal health is undeniably a factor in human health.
Agricultural practices, including irrigation, pesticide use, and waste management can influence animal health, making disease transmission a concern at every stage of the food supply chain. With pathogens originating from animals or animal products playing such a significant role in disease transmission, veterinary medicine must be included in any effort to improve global health.
Opportunities to influence global health
The ever-growing list of global health issues can be overwhelming, but don’t lose hope. There are motivated, passionate, and intelligent individuals working toward solutions in organizations built on the idea that every individual and every voice matters in the advancement of global health.
So how can you play a role? “Everyone can make a difference. Small contributions quickly add up if enough people take up the cause,” Macpherson asserts.
One suggestion is to expand your perspective on medicine by attending global health speaking events, taking part in one of these organizations, or pursuing an international education, particularly if you are a practicing MD or a prospective medical student.
At SGU, we are committed to empowering our students to help improve global health at a local level. In fact, we offer options for our medical students to earn a dual-degree, combining our Doctor of Medicine (MD) program with our Master of Public Health (MPH) program. This MD/MPH degree gives students a unique perspective on integrating medical care at both the holistic and patient levels.
Learn how others are putting this training to use across the globe in our article, "9 SGU Medical Grads Who Are Improving Patients' Lives Around the World."
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