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Public health has an odd place in medical education and the physician’s practice. Although clearly required as a part of the curriculum, it has historically been underemphasized.  By historically, I mean since 1848. Medical schools were created to train doctors in the science of the person (singular) but not in the science of people. Someone had the bright idea of offering further training to doctors (further detailed here) to allow them to have a broader perspective:

To earn this postgraduate certificate, students took courses on“preventive medicine and sanitary science, personal hygiene, public health administration, sanitary biology, sanitary chemistry, special pathology, communicable diseases, sanitary engineering, and demography” as well as“special courses and lectures in infant mortality, social service work, mental hygiene, oral prophylaxis, the prevention of ear, nose and throat disease, hygiene of the eyes, industrial hygiene and medicine, eugenics, genetics, and sanitary law.

Because it was a post-graduate degree, rather than create a cadre of “super docs” it moved public health out of the medical school entirely.

In 1998, the Association of  American Medical Colleges urged medical schools to incorporate public health by “first, teaching students the practical fundamentals of the core disciplines that underpin the effective application of population health; second, giving students experiences in studying real populations; and, third, integrating the teaching and learning into all parts of  medical curriculum rather than relying solely on a stand-alone population health course.”

In the last 20 years, medical schools didn’t answer the call.  From the requirements for medical school curriculum they are required to provide instruction in the following:

  • The recognition and development of solutions for health care disparities
  • The importance of meeting the health care needs of medically underserved populations
  • The development of core professional attributes (e.g., altruism, accountability) needed to provide effective care in a multidimensional and diverse society

As someone with an interest in the health of the population, I sought more than just “recognition.” My medical school offered a joint degree (MD/MPH) which allowed me to obtain instruction in the health of people (plural) in addition to health of a person.

One class in particular sticks with me. It was a health policy class taught by a professor who was a self-described Maoist. Communism in the mid-1980s was scary and having a person who admired a communist leader was more than a little controversial. I would leave my basic science lectures at the medical school and go to a class where we discussed how China had markedly improved the health of their citizens with “barefoot doctors” who indeed were barefoot, and had minimal training. They transformed the Chinese countryside by providing primary health care services, and focused on prevention rather than treatment. They provided immunizations, delivery for pregnant women, and improvement of sanitation. To my medical school classmates they were in no way doctors. To my public health classmates they were a model for the future.

Fast forward 30 years, and we are coming around to learning that China was onto something. People from the community are much more likely to work to improve their community and care for their friends and neighbors. Known as community health workers in this country, they are frontline public health workers who are trusted members of and/or have an unusually close understanding of the community served. This trusting relationship enables the workers to serve as a liaison/link/intermediary between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery. It looks like we are going to start employing these folks to help improve the health of the citizens of Alabama.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid my physician colleagues won’t recognize a good thing when they see it. After all, it’s only been 150 years.

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