April 6, 2007

Frist touts health care as global diplomacy tool

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Bill Frist, M.D., center, shares a laugh with Vanderbilt Medical students Milton Ochieng, right, and his brother, Fred, who have opened a health clinic in their home village of Lwala, Kenya. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Frist touts health care as global diplomacy tool

Bill Frist, M.D., left, with John Sergent, M.D., at last week’s speech. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Bill Frist, M.D., left, with John Sergent, M.D., at last week’s speech. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

For 12 years as a member of the U.S. Senate, the past four as majority leader, Bill Frist, M.D., considered himself to be a “citizen legislator.”

Now the former Vanderbilt heart-lung transplant surgeon wants to be a “citizen diplomat,” advocating health care as a “currency for peace” around the world.

“That means making things like medicine and health care a formal part of our public diplomacy,” Frist told reporters last week, prior to delivering two speeches on the Vanderbilt campus.

“I think that sort of approach is important. (It) does lead to stability.”

Frist said a health clinic that he helped establish in southern Sudan in 1998 seemed to have a calming effect on the civil strife that had plagued that part of the country for 25 years.

“If you put a medical facility where people are not getting along … all of a sudden (they) lay down their weapons,” he said. “It's very powerful.”

On leave from his faculty position at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he established the Vanderbilt Transplant Center before entering the U.S. Senate in 1995, Frist said he will decide in the next few months whether to re-enter academic medicine.

In the meantime, he said he will concentrate on international health.

Frist, who was succeeded in the U.S. Senate in January by former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker, was the keynote speaker at a benefit March 29 that raised $25,000 to help two Vanderbilt medical students from Kenya establish their village's first health clinic.

Third-year medical student Milton Ochieng' and his younger brother, Fred, a first-year student, on April 2 officially opened the Lwala Health Clinic, named for their village, which is more than 25 miles from the nearest district hospital.

Frist said his son Jonathan, a Vanderbilt sophomore, asked him to speak at the event in the Student Life Center ballroom. Organizers said nearly 500 people — most of them Vanderbilt undergraduates — attended.

“I'm here really for one reason,” Frist told the students, “and that is to share with you how hopes and dreams really do become reality.

“My message to you is to get involved,” he continued. “Indeed, by doing that you will capture what this is all about — a life-long ambition to make a difference.”

The next day Frist delivered the same message to a standing-room-only crowd of medical students in Light Hall as part of the annual World Health Week lecture series.

“All of you need to go to Africa,” urged Frist, who since 1998 has spent part of nearly every summer providing medical care throughout the African continent.

“I need your help, and I ask all of you to participate,” he said. Every 24 hours, 30,000 children under the age of 5 die, many from preventable causes including diarrhea, pneumonia, tetanus, measles and malaria.

“These children don't have to suffer or die … if we act,” Frist continued. “The tools exist. They're pretty simple.” Ten dollars will purchase a bed net to protect a child from malaria. Fifteen cents will buy a dose of antibiotics to treat pneumonia.

Yet millions of people still do not have access to basic health care.

Frist was among the health experts who pushed for the establishment of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which he said has provided more than $18 billion for AIDS treatment worldwide since 2003.

Yet neither PEPFAR nor the Switzerland-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria can keep up with the tidal wave of new HIV infections — about 4 million each year, Frist said.

“Prevention, care and treatment have to go hand-in-hand,” he said. “Probably 60 million more people will die unless we act.”

Frist said he will remain involved politically. As chairman of the Volunteer Political Action Committee, he is committed to supporting Republican candidates for public office. But, he added, “The intimacy of health care is my life.”

“My philosophy is very simple,” he told his two audiences of undergraduate and medical students. “When Americans reach out to help people in need, we do so because of who we are and what we believe.

“We believe, as our founders declared, that human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights, the rights you already know — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And those are the convictions that ultimately prompt us to action in the world.

“And when people around the world see it, they react in a positive way.”