I believe in Public Health.
I believe that preventing disease is far more rewarding than treating it, that finding ways to keep people well is far more satisfying than getting them out of sickness.
As a physician, I am one who is entrusted through years of training to recognize illness and to intervene. I am called to apply the right mix of wisdom, compassion and modern medical technology to cure disease, to relieve suffering and to prolong life.
But I discovered early in my practice of medicine that many of the diseases and injuries that I was called upon to treat didn’t have to happen.
It wasn’t a matter a fate that a middle-aged father of three developed lung cancer, or that the young woman needed her leg amputated below the knee because of diabetes, or that a 13-year-old boy was struck by a car as he rode his bike on a narrow highway.
Most of the common, serious conditions I saw in my patients didn’t arise randomly, nor were they genetically pre-ordained. Usually they happened because of easily recognized risk factors in the environments where my patients lived, factors that could well have been changed before disease developed or an injury occurred.
I started to question whether all my training in clinical medicine was helping me make any difference in the overall health of my community. It seemed that what I had to give as a doctor was too little and was coming way too late for the many people seeking my care for preventable conditions.
I was ready to give up on medicine when I learned about Public Health.
Here I discovered a profession devoted to understanding the root causes of disease, a profession that brings science and imagination to the task of helping people avoid infections, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, injuries, and a bevy of other conditions.
More than that, in Public Health I encountered a collective movement of fascinating and gifted people, practitioners who work in every state and every community with the sole purpose of preventing the needless suffering I saw each day in my clinic.
As I learned what this movement has achieved in such areas as sanitation, immunization, highway safety, maternal and child health and tobacco control, I came to see that the good health that most of us enjoy is no accident. It is the result of a coordinated effort in which doctors, hospitals and other providers of medical care play only a part.
So I became a believer in Public Health, and for nearly 20 years it has been my life’s work.
Today America faces a serious crisis in health care, with medical needs far exceeding our country’s ability to pay. The problem is usually framed in terms of improving the supply of health care to more people. Little is said of reducing demand, by helping more people stay healthy.
Here is where my belief in Public Health gives me hope. Sooner or later, when we can no longer afford the health care system we have, prevention will finally take center stage. If so, the best days for Public Health are still to come.