April 3, 2009

Private sector involvement crucial to global health gains

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Tadataka Yamada, M.D., of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, delivers last week’s Discovery Lecture. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Private sector involvement crucial to global health gains

Although many folks might struggle to find Ghana, Zambia or Sri Lanka on a world map, the health care issues that affect these and other countries in the developing world are just an airplane flight away.

“When we think of health problems 'out there,'” said Tadataka (Tachi) Yamada, M.D., “in the old days they stayed out there. But today they come here very quickly.”

Unfortunately, noted Yamada, president of the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, there is a vast chasm between the research going on in the developed world and the health care needs of developing countries.

“The reality and the sadness is that two-thirds of the world never sees the fruits of the excellent work that is being done here. New knowledge and advances in medicine just don't get to the large number of people who need them,” Yamada said during last week's Discovery Lecture.

In his talk, Yamada shared his perspectives on global health and lessons learned in his experiences working with the Gates Foundation.

Touching on the importance of the private sector in delivering such needed solutions, Yamada described his visit to a health clinic in a remote area of Ghana. While the clinic was well staffed, clean and stocked with ample medical supplies, only about half of the women in the village visited the clinic for their health care needs — preferring instead to obtain their medicines from a “chemical seller,” or traveling pharmacist.

“The women in that village feel more comfortable paying out of pocket for medicines from this chemical seller — who they know and trust and who gives them the right medicines for the problems that they have — than they do the clinic.”

Finding ways to work within such existing systems is important for delivering health care in such areas. The Gates Foundation is in a unique position to “walk freely between the public and private sectors,” Yamada noted. In addition, the foundation is also focused on high-risk, innovative approaches to developing new health care delivery tools.

Although academic institutions are crucial to making such medical discoveries and advances, “humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity,” Yamada noted, citing remarks made by Bill Gates.

“If we're willing to think creatively, if we're willing to not accept dogma, if we're willing to challenge the status quo, we can make great progress.”

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.