October 30, 2013
It likely will come as no surprise that the University’s recent Pumerantz Lecture keynote speaker – former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, M.D. – spent some time talking about the Affordable Care Act, its ramifications and challenges, and the long-term effect it is expected to have on how health care is provided in our country.
But Dr. Sullivan’s address did not have the Act as its focus. Instead, he offered insightful context and commentary on the development of American health care since the early part of the 20th century, eschewing current hot-button health-care talking points in favor of a nuanced and enlightened view on the need for better health-care access and improved diversity in the health-care workforce.
Dr. Sullivan, who founded the Morehouse School of Medicine, aptly titled his October 24 speech at WesternU “The American Journey to Health Equity,” and what a journey it was. He painted a vivid picture of medicine and of medical education in the 20th century, including the release of the Flexner Report in 1910, which studied every medical school in the United States and Canada and resulted in major changes in the way medical students are educated. As a result, the quality of U.S. health care education, and of care itself, has improved dramatically over the past century.
But the U.S. is not the healthiest nation in the world. It’s not even in the Top 20. Why? Because, despite spending more money on its health care system than any other nation, the U.S. has a health care distribution problem. Health care quality and access for minorities and low-income groups is sub-optimal, Sullivan said, and the percentage of minorities practicing in the health professions distinctly lags their percentages of the overall population. The shortfall creates a social communication problem that diminishes health care’s reach. “It doesn’t mean that any one specific health professional needs to be limited to one person of their own race, but it does mean that in the barrio or the ghetto, if we are to address the needs in those communities, we need to have more diversity,” Sullivan said. “Having the scientific knowledge and base, but not being able to communicate with patients, not being able to establish that therapeutic relationship, means that scientific knowledge goes to waste.”
It seems clear that Dr. Sullivan’s emphasis, beyond improved access and diversity, was simple: Connecting with patients is the most meaningful and effective component of health care. Thoughtful, caring communication is a powerful instrument that should be at the ready in every caregiver’s bag, and the relationship between care provider and patient is a social contract of profound importance.
“We need to remember that as health professionals, we are entrusted with the lives of people,” he concluded. “We are expected to be sure that the interest of the patient, and that patient’s life and health and family, are first – not the payment of services. We need to be sure that we continue to earn the respect and trust of the community by behaving as caring professionals, rather than as cold business people who focus on the bottom line.”
These are words to live and work by.
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My best to you all,