May 11, 2001

O’Day meets with Chinese officials

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Dr. Denis O'Day

O’Day meets with Chinese officials

As the American public recently watched an international tug-of-war between America and Chinese governments over a U.S. spy plane, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center professor was seated at a table of Chinese health officials in the communist country’s capital.

Dr. Denis M. O’Day, George Weeks Hale Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, recently spent six days in Beijing, at that country’s invitation. He was there with other U.S. physicians to discuss the American medical education system and the specialties licensing boards.

“They were pretty serious about trying to find out how we measure quality in physicians and methods used to quantify licensure and board certification,” O’Day said after returning. “They were very eager for our information.”

O’Day traveled as a representative of the American Board of Ophthalmology, of which he is executive director, and the American Board of Medical Specialties, on whose executive committee he serves.

“With more than a 1.2 billion population, China has a huge need for physicians,” O’Day said. His impression of the current state of medicine in China is that physicians are poorly paid and lacking incentive to regulate themselves, and that the totalitarian government imposes rules on medical practice with little consideration of medicine itself.

“Their specialties are not organized in any way like it is here,” he said. “Our board system is a foreign concept for them.”

This is the second trip to China by Vanderbilt ophthalmologists. In October, Dr. Sean P. Donahue, assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Tammy Johnson, director of the Tennessee Lions Outreach Eye Center, led a team of ophthalmologists to China to perform eye screenings for World Sight Day.

As contacts with the western world increase, O’Day said, more attention is being paid globally to the quality of medical care in China. The same is true in other parts of the world. “Studies from England and Europe show that as medicine gets more complicated, the quality of physicians is of greater concern,” he said.

O’Day said no mention was made of tensions between the U.S. and China about the U.S. Navy spy plane or the crew, who were still being held under guard on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese air force jet. “They never brought it up, so we didn’t either,” he said.

“We were very warmly received,” O’Day said. “They went to such an effort to host us. They asked very good questions. Potentially, what they’re trying to do is a huge undertaking.”

As for suggestions about their medical system, O’Day said the goal was to “spark an interest in the basic concepts behind our teaching. The future is vague. But they will look for people who can be helpful to them. It was definitely worth meeting with them.”