What Is Global Health? The 6 Biggest Issues You Need to Know About
The effects of a globalized economy, advances in transportation, and changes to agricultural practices have resulted in health care issues transcending international borders.
Practicing physicians and medical school instructors must do their parts to influence prevention efforts on a worldwide scale by focusing on global health. The first step to understanding global health is to define it, and then learn about some related issues.
What is global health?
While precise global health definitions vary by source, you can think of it as the understanding of health care at an international and interdisciplinary level. It includes the study, research, and practice of medicine with a focus on improving health and health care equity for populations worldwide.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the most prominent agencies advancing global health, researchers and leaders in a variety of fields are spearheading initiatives to work together.
Dr. Calum Macpherson, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and director of research in the School of Medicine at St. George’s University (SGU), describes the One Health One Medicine initiative as the convergence of human, animal, and ecosystem health.
“Each of these practices is inextricably connected,” Dr. 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 progress in global health? The six global health issues detailed below help illustrate the breadth and depth of this complex field.
According to an article published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, pandemics are defined as global disease outbreaks. Examples of pandemics include certain influenza outbreaks, COVID-19, 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. Vaccination efforts can help, but it’s critical to address issues at the source by addressing important areas like health education and responsible agricultural practices. Researchers have also made recommendations on global risk mitigation measures that can help even after an outbreak occurs.
2. Environmental factors
How can air pollution and climate change affect the health of the human population? In most cases, the answer lies in water sources and sanitation.
Storms, flooding, droughts, and air pollution make it easier for diseases to spread across large groups of people. The immediate solution is to provide resources like bottled water and sanitation technology, 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,” Dr. Macpherson says. “Global policies to mitigate mankind’s contribution to climate change are gaining traction.”
He points to legislation in numerous countries as evidence of this. There are policies that regulate individual household energy consumption, for instance, as well as efforts to encourage large-scale 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. This estimate aligns with data from The World Bank.
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. This results in health disparities, such as high infant mortality rates, which are often related to geography. 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 infrastructure, average citizens become more vulnerable to diseases. This leads them to seek opportunities to flee the dangerous situations that threaten their well-beings.
Migration can allow illnesses to quickly spread, but organizations like the WHO stress that solutions should aim to improve refugee and migrant health through efforts like organizing 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, and other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) account for 70 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to the WHO.
Education plays a role in the prevention of NCDs, helping populations understand and change lifestyle factors, such as poor diets, inactivity, tobacco use, and alcohol consumption. But there is also a correlation between income level and the prevalence of NCDs.
The WHO notes that 85 percent of premature NCD-related deaths 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
The study of veterinary public health, which some students pursue by obtaining a dual degree in veterinary medicine and public health, makes it clear that animal wellness is naturally intertwined with that of humans. Perhaps the clearest connection occurs within the food chain, but animals are also relied upon for transportation, draught power, and clothing in developing areas.
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 there are so many ways individuals can make a positive impact.
“Everyone can make a difference,” Dr. Macpherson asserts. “Small contributions quickly add up if enough people take up the cause.”
One suggestion is to expand your perspective on medicine by attending global health speaking events or pursuing an international education, particularly if you are a practicing MD or a prospective medical student. SGU, for instance, empowers students to pursue opportunities in global health by offering a dual MD/MPH degree. This option allows them to gain perspective on integrating medical care at both the holistic and patient levels.
Join the cause
What is global health if not a team effort? Clearly, collaborating with other passionate professionals is the key to advancing wellness worldwide. To gain some inspiration on how you could make an impact, read our article “9 SGU Medical Grads Who Are Improving Patients’ Lives Around the World.”
*This article was originally published in December 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2021.