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DPH Looks at Human Rights and Public Health

DPH Looks at Human Rights and Public Health

August 21, 2009

If you see someone drowning in a river you should swim out to save them; and when another person is seen floundering in the tides, you can do the same for them. This is the medical approach to solving health care issues. To go upriver and see who is throwing people in the water—that is the public health approach.

Dr. Michael A. Grodin, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, used this analogy to illustrate the difference between today’s existing dual models of health care. Dr. Grodin addressed a standing room only crowd yesterday at the DPH’s “A Dialogue on Human Rights and Public Health in the 21st Century.” His talk, which was focused on what he called the “inextricable link” between basic human rights and health care, was ultimately a call for education.

After citing startling statistics regarding global wealth distribution (the 3 richest people in the world have assets greater than the GDPs of the 48 least developed countries), he came to the eventual conclusion that “the primary determinant of a country’s medical care is their socioeconomic status, and the primary determinant of a country’s socioeconomic status is educational status!” Tracing the history of human rights by citing such documents as the Torah and the Magna Carta, Dr. Grodin suggested that human rights ultimately have to do with the relationship between the state and the individual; and deal with the entitlements and obligations associated with that relationship. The state, he proffered, has the obligation to “respect, protect, and fulfill” the basic human rights of its people—rights to which the people are naturally entitled. Human dignity, he ultimately argued, is at the root of human rights, which is in turn the most basic element with regard to access to health care.

To simplify his argument and make the “inextricable link” evident, Grodin asserted that “the goal of health care is the alleviation of suffering, and the goal of human rights is the alleviation of suffering.” Both, he argued, have the same ultimate objective and rely on the same understanding of basic human values.

A quotation from Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai adorned the front of the program brochure: “we know what to do, why don’t we do it?” In answer to this question Dr. Grobin suggested, “you find an issue, and like a laser you focus on it.” Despite his deep understanding of the issues facing health and human rights, Dr. Grobin is still a self-proclaimed optimist with regard to the issue of global health care. He suggests that if we all work to achieve small successes we will ultimately overcome the larger issues. In closing he offered a similarly optimistic African proverb: “if you put enough spider webs together you can catch an elephant.”
-Caitlin Bethlahmy