Simone Garcia: Redefining Health

Earlier this month, I attended a speech given by Doctor Alex Jadad on global public health and its relation to inequality around the world. Listening to what Jadad brought up during his lecture raised interesting connections between global public health and the goals of Peacework.   

Doctor Jadad is a physician, educator, researcher, and public advocate whose mission is to improve health and wellness for all through information and communication technologies. Born and educated in Colombia, he obtained his medical degree in 1986, specializing in anesthesiology. At twenty, and still a medical student, he became a leading medical expert on crack cocaine in Colombia and an internationally sought after speaker. He will be a guest speaker at a global health summit, Creating a Pandemic of Health, in November at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. 

While the doctor’s focus is primarily on health and access to care, I found his talk on Friday especially relatable to Peacework’s initiatives – notably in our emphasis on experiential learning, and our dedication to improving access to care. The doctor began by discussing the changing conceptions of health, and how, while we may have an idea of what health is, it remains a concept quite difficult to define in neat terms. One of the most interesting things that he mentioned was the fact that the increasingly neoliberal economic system is simultaneously impoverishing billions of people, leading to a global obesity crisis, and filling the pockets of the world’s top percentile. Based on this phenomenon, he asked his audience if we believed that income had an impact on health. 

Rather than social determinants of health – including access to clean water, adequate shelter, and nutritious food – Doctor Jadad argued that, in many ways, globalization and reduced barriers to trade have created social determinations of health, wherein those who are wealthy have access to better care than those who “lose” in the free market. Those who are highly educated are less likely to develop diabetes, not only because they know the risks of eating junk food, but because they can afford nutritious substitutes. Doctor Jadad made the case that healthcare is largely dependent upon where one sits on the class ladder in society. It is clear that economics and healthcare are deeply intertwined. 

Using this knowledge, one can see the real impact of collaborating with local and grassroots efforts to promote health, equity, and higher standards of living. This is exactly what Peacework aims to do. 

Using expanding conceptions of the word ‘health’, the doctor noted how developed countries continue to place greater emphasis on attaining wealth in terms of money. It is little wonder why people are continually more depressed, stressed, and suicidal in a world where attaining money – a unit of measurement for wealth – is our top, and only, priority. Jadad argued that money cannot represent true wealth – instead, it is a combination of factors that should contribute to a sense of happiness, fulfillment, and well-being. 

By asking his audience to question our own way of living, and our focus on attaining a high income to pay for things that those in our society deem necessary for a full and happy life – at the expense of our own mental health – Doctor Jadad drew parallels to the things we find important – status, “wealth”, and success – in comparison to what others (many in Latin American countries) would consider equally key – family, happiness, and stability. 

Jadad concluded his talk by presenting varying definitions of the term health. Rather than focusing on a narrow conception of “global public health”, and viewing the world from a culturally imperialistic lens – that developing nations need to be reformed to follow a certain pattern for success and well-being – we should consider the ways in which economics can, and do, impact healthcare. Countries need to work together across all levels of governance – and in tandem with non-governmental agencies – to promote a holistic conception of health and its attainment. 

For many, being healthy has very little to do with simply not having diseases. No one can claim complete physical, mental, or social well-being. Rather, health is about how one adapts to a changing environment, heals when damaged, and manages in the face of physical, mental, and social challenges. In so many ways, exposure to different cultures, ways of life, and attitudes can positively impact a total conception of being healthy – for young and old alike. Furthermore, by actively collaborating with local initiatives – both domestic and international – a holistic conception of and appreciation for health can develop. 

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