Issue: Spring/Summer 2014
To Serve and Heal
Jamie Potter, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology; Director of Pre-Medical Education at Houghton College
For many of us, we go about our daily lives quite content with the status of our own health. We have the occasional flu or cold, we may suffer from seasonal allergies, we may even have a chronic illness that requires daily medications and professional monitoring. We may become unnerved by the random Internet or television news article about the plight of the uninsured, but we quickly go back to our own life happenings – getting the kids’ homework finished, preparing a presentation for work, or finishing the load of laundry with the uniforms for the weekend soccer game. We may complain about the cost of antibiotics or our copay for a doctor’s visit, but we pay it without too much thought.
For more than 15 percent of the U.S. population – that’s more than 47 million people – access to medications, physicians, and basic health care is limited, even nonexistent, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sure, they can see a doctor for a life-threatening illness through the emergency department, but they don’t have a primary care doctor to help them with preventive medical care. If they are lucky enough to get government-funded health care, they struggle to find a physician who will take their insurance plan. Why does this problem even exist in a developed country like the United States? Why do people get turned away from care? The issue is extremely complex and fraught with hidden complications.
Last year alone, the U.S. government, as well as numerous insurance agencies, cut reimbursement rates significantly for physicians. That meant hospitals, private practices and medical groups had to see more patients to cover their own bills. Physicians have been forced to reduce the time spent with each patient to add more patients to the daily clinic log. This cut also resulted in selectivity against patients with no insurance or lacking adequate insurance. Compounding this problem, there is a shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, we are currently being crippled by a deficit of almost 60,000 physicians, and by 2020, the United States will face a shortage of almost 92,000 physicians.
Globally speaking, the issue of access to adequate health care is even more problematic. According to the World Health Organization, there is an estimated shortage of almost 4.3 million doctors, midwives, nurses and support workers worldwide. The shortage is most severe in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that almost 7 million children died in 2011 worldwide, many from easily treatable illnesses such as diarrhea, malnutrition and malaria. Another estimated 150 million people endure financial bankruptcy each year because they have to pay cash out-of-pocket for the health care they need. Basic health necessities such as clean drinking water, proper insect nets, vaccinations and access to treatment continue to be the critical blocks to community health development.
Much of the inadequacy in the global health system is due to inequality among people groups on the basis of religion, ethnicity and gender. Women and children are the most severely affected by lack of basic medical care, not just in treatment and preventive medicine, but in knowledge of how to provide a healthy environment for families to prosper. In regions where poverty, war and political unrest are commonplace, medical care is in greater demand, yet the presence of medical personnel is largely absent. The movement of people to refugee camps due to civil unrest or environmental catastrophe constantly shifts the efforts of relief agencies. This not only impacts the physical health of the global population but also cripples the economies and prosperity of countries as the workforce is reduced in numbers.
As complicated as these issues are, steps can be taken in the fight for justice. The first is awareness. Lectures, panels, and classroom discussions at Houghton are commonplace as students are introduced to concerns in public health, global consciousness and medical ethics. The next step is engagement, providing opportunities for faculty and students to find practical applications to theories. Some students spend a semester in Buffalo as interns with Jericho Road Family Practice (JRFP); recent graduates work with Wesley ServiceCorps helping refugees gain access to health care. One alumna, an osteopathic medical student at Lake Erie College of Medicine, served in a small clinic in East Africa as part of a study abroad experience; another, a naturopathic medical student at the Boucher Institute, spent a summer as a medical intern at the drop-in clinic with JRFP; a 2014 graduate who will be starting his physician assistant training at Trevecca Nazarene University this summer served in a Christian community health outreach and poverty immersion program in a low-income community of refugees and immigrants with the Siloam Institute.
As a Christian community, Houghton College is dedicated to developing students who are global citizens. We are committed to serving our communities in ways beyond speech and rhetoric — with our hearts, hands and minds. We are committed to sending our students into the world to serve and heal and to labor for justice, as Jesus instructed.
“And a leper came to Jesus and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And, filled with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cured.” Matthew 8:1-3.