March 20, 2009

Communities key to global health gains: Farmer

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Harvard’s Paul Farmer, M.D., speaks of the challenges and opportunities in addressing global health issues at last week’s World Health Week lecture. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Communities key to global health gains: Farmer

Nearly every seat was filled at Langford Auditorium last week to hear Paul Farmer, M.D., speak about global health.

Farmer's talk kicked off World Health Week, an annual series of talks organized by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's International Health Committee.

Farmer, vice chair of the Department of Social Medicine at Harvard and associate chief of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities at Brigham and Women's Hospital, is perhaps best known for co-founding Partners in Health. He spoke about the challenges and successes of his organization, highlighting its work in Haiti and Rwanda.

“If there is one term you should leave here today with, it is community health workers (CHWs), or accompangnateurs (as they are called in Haiti),” Farmer said. “The United States works on a system of community health centers, but our work shows the CHW model is more cost effective and sustainable.”

Farmer showed slide upon slide of people with AIDS who increased their body weights and lowered their viral loads. He said training local people and giving them the tools to take public health out to where people live creates success.

“We need to work on teaching how to deliver health care by teaching the science of delivery,” Framer said.

He praised Vanderbilt for its attention to global health, but said universities need to be challenged to make the science of health care delivery a pillar of training, along with training in science and medical skill.

“When we say 'global health,' that includes Nashville and Boston and Atlanta. Universities are surrounded by poverty, and we should look and say 'how much do we need to do to provide better service right here in this country?'” Farmer said.

Farmer took questions from audience members, including Milton Ochieng’, a medical resident well known for building a clinic in his home village in Kenya with his brother.

Ochieng' asked Farmer how support can be reliably garnered both from the United States and from the local governments in the area the services are provided.
Farmer urged Ocheing' and others to look at the positive.

“Universities are improving, although some may be dragged along by students. Governments are not all corrupt, they can be worked with,” Farmer said. “I have a lot of faith in your generation. Today there is a lack of hostility to the imperative of making health care equal for all.”

Farmer is called the “man who would cure the world” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder in his book about Farmer's work with Partners in Health. The book is entitled “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”