At Penn, global health pioneer speaks of morality and medicine



Paul Farmer, cofounder of the group Partners in Health, spoke to about 1,200 people, from undergraduates to the medical school dean.
Paul Farmer, a renowned pioneer of global health care, brought his message about the importance of caring for the world’s poor to the University of Pennsylvania this week.

Farmer said academic medical centers like Penn can make a huge difference by bringing their model of combining research, training, and hands-on care to places where people lack even basic medical supplies.

A Harvard Medical School professor, Farmer has used that approach successfully at the organization he helped found, Partners in Health.

Farmer spoke to about 1,200 people, ranging from undergrads to the dean of the medical school, at Irvine Auditorium on Wednesday. Penn’s Center for Global Health, the host of Farmer’s daylong visit, invited Penn students and medical personnel, plus their peers from Drexel, Temple, and Thomas Jefferson Universities.

Though Farmer could well have argued that allowing a disease like Ebola to fester in poor countries endangers everyone in an interconnected world, his was not a message of American self-interest. He thinks that providing good care for the world’s poorest people – some of whom live in this country – is the morally right thing to do.

Farmer, 56, who began working in Haiti as a student and has since branched out into several African countries, said early American programs for people in poor nations were bare-bones approaches that emphasized prevention measures such as breast-feeding and immunization.

That goes only so far, he said. While Farmer got the care of a top surgeon after he was hit by a car in Boston, someone in a poor country might have been told, “You should have looked both ways before crossing the street.”

He called for integration of prevention and equitable care.

Farmer said Ebola was enabled in its spread by weak health systems in the African countries where it took hold. The lack of appropriate medical facilities for treatment was one reason people avoided asking for professional help.

“This part of the world is a public-health desert, and that’s why Ebola spread,” he said. “This part of the world is a clinic desert, and that’s why it killed.”

Countries that lost doctors and nurses to the disease now need help from institutions like Penn to rebuild their medical infrastructure, Farmer said. He emphasized that programs like Partners in Health need people with a variety of skills, not just medical degrees.

Penn launched its Center for Global Health last year. Glen Gaulton, a former Penn chief science officer who directs the center, spent the day with Farmer as he met with students and medical residents. He said Farmer’s consistent message was to “care enough to become engaged.”

Interest among medical students in working with poor populations abroad has gone “through the roof,” Gaulton said. A lot of the talk Wednesday centered on how to make that possible. Few can afford to make it their life’s work. It’s hard for young faculty members to do what Farmer does – combine academic and medical work in the United States with his international service.

Gaulton is interested in how to make it easier – and financially viable – for doctors to take time off from their work at Penn.

Work with the poor feeds the core reason that many people decided to go into medicine, Gaulton said.

“Most of us engaged in these careers – and I know it sounds horribly corny,” he said, “but we really do want to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Helping those who need it the most, Gaulton said, is a “moral imperative.”

Source: Stacey Burling, Staff Writer @StaceyABurling