April 24, 2009

Speaker explores ‘medical diplomacy’

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Project HOPE’s John Howe III, M.D., talks about medical diplomacy at VUSN’s Centennial Lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Speaker explores ‘medical diplomacy’

John Howe III, M.D., president of Project HOPE, made his objective clear during his presentation last week as part of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Centennial lecture series: “I want to put a 'face' on the issue of medical diplomacy.”

Addressing a standing-room only audience of members from the Nashville and Vanderbilt communities, Howe gave specific examples on how nurses, physicians and others are making health care available around the globe. Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) is actively involved in 39 countries. It is probably best known for its humanitarian missions that include a 650-person team of health care professionals who live and work aboard the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort and bring much-needed expertise to hard-to-reach areas.

Howe set out to provide examples of how medical diplomacy “gives hope, promotes health and knocks down hatred.” He spoke of the new 578-bed teaching hospital in Poland, the Shanghai hospital that performed 3,000 open heart surgeries in children and the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort's trip to Haiti. In each case, he mentioned a personal story, like the 94-year-old woman who had be blind for 30 years but gained her sight back with the help of Project Hope health teams.

On a perception and policy level, he gave two specific examples. Regarding a Project Hope trip to the Middle East, he discussed the public image of Americans. Before the trip, there was a 20 percent favorable response to Americans, according to one poll. After Project Hope teams saw more than 49,000 patients, America's favorable rate increased to 60 percent. A vocal critic of the United States, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was skeptical about a U.S. Navy ship full of health care volunteers helping his citizens. After Project Hope saw thousands of patients, President Ortega openly expressed his gratitude.

“All of this is possible because our volunteers make a true difference, and there is an appetite for volunteerism in our county,” said Howe.