Just Say No to Public Health

DrRich | May 19th, 2010 - 12:04 am


Many thanks to a loyal reader, Ivan from Montreal, for calling DrRich’s attention to a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguing for more dollars to go to “public health,” as opposed to “healthcare.” The editorial is by David Hemenway, Ph.D., director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center of the Harvard University School of Public Health.

By “public health,” Hemenway appears to mean that branch of academics that deals with promoting the overall health of a community through organized societal efforts. Some effective public health efforts have included vaccination programs, improved sanitation, motor vehicle safety, draining the swamps, limiting public smoking, and the chlorination of drinking water. A few of these efforts have even been advanced by actual public health experts, such as those to which Hemenway refers.

Hemenway’s main argument is that society gets more bang for the buck with money spent on these kinds of public health efforts, than on money spent on healthcare for individual Americans, an argument which is almost certainly true.

But his conclusion, that the distribution of healthcare dollars should be adjusted accordingly, is spurious. All four of the specific arguments he gives to bolster his claim that public health is underfunded are insubstantial, and more importantly, the folks who have given us most of the wonderful public health benefits we all enjoy are actually not the public health experts whom Hemenway wants to fund.

First, Hemenway claims public health is under-funded because people are just too stupid to understand the importance of public health. Specifically, they are incapable of valuing and thus implementing actions whose benefits lie in the future (such as those provided by public health). Hemenway is quick to say that it is not peoples’ fault; they are built that way. He even gives a complex neuroanatomical explanation for the innate inability of folks to plan for the future.

So: This must be why Americans have never landed on the moon, and why they refuse to invest in cancer research, or to fund their 401(k) plans. As Ivan from Montreal points out, this must be why the great cathedrals were never built. Hemenway’s point here is so spurious on its face that DrRich must wonder if it reflects that baseline contempt for the mental capacity of the proletariat, which is so fundamental to Progressive thinking.

Secondly, Hemenway points out that the beneficiaries of public health (being the public) are not identifiable as individuals, and so we (the bovine masses) cannot bring ourselves to care about them, as we care about individuals such as, he suggests, Baby Jessica falling down the well. This additional deficiency of the proletariat puts public health at a major disadvantage.

It is indeed true that humans have more capacity to identify with individual stories than with “populations.” But this issue is not unique to the field of public health. Those raising funds for heart disease research, for instance, deciphered this mystery long ago – since statistics only gets you so far, you need to tweak potential donors’ emotions by advancing the story of the 12-year-old heart transplant recipient. If the academics in public health haven’t been able to figure this out – using the Baby Jessica story to advance their latest theories on well safety, for instance – whose fault is that? (If what Hemenway says is true – that the field of public health “relies almost exclusively on government funding,” that’s where the fault is. Being on the public dole greatly dulls one’s perceptiveness and creativity.)

Thirdly, Hemenway says, “in public health, the benefactors, too, are often unknown.”  That is, whereas medicine has its great public heros – Hemenway suggests DeBakey and Barnard – the great heroes of public health do not get their due. There are doubtless many heroes of public health – the inventor of the flush toilet comes immediately to mind – but unfortunately most of them remain anonymous. The flush toilet’s inventor, for instance, based on current archeological evidence, died in the Indus valley 4600 years ago. Indeed, many if not most of the truly impactful public health advances took place outside the ivory towers of the modern academy.

Hemenway struggles mightily to come up with an unsung hero for modern, academically-based public health, and – and undoubtedly wishing not to remind us of certain well-known, early20th century heroes of the academy who espoused eugenics as the most effective means of achieving public health  – offers up one Maurice Hilleman, who saved countless lives with his development of more than 30 vaccines. Now, DrRich completely agrees that Hilleman was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century, and probably was responsible for preventing more premature deaths than any other person in history, and, certainly, that he is an unsung hero. But it is a bit of a stretch for Hemenway to claim him for one of his own. Hilleman did his vaccine development as an employee of E.R. Squibb, and then, of Merck. That is, his research was funded by private industry, whose primary motive was filthy lucre. If Hilleman is a hero of public health (and DrRich agrees that he is), then his career is an argument for unleashing the capacity of the private pharmaceutical industry, rather than an argument for more government funding.

Fourth, Hemenway laments that public health efforts often meet with fierce opposition from well-placed interests. This is true. Limiting smoking in public places, for instance, required a sustained battle against powerful interests for decades. But here, Hemenway tips his hand a bit too much. He cites a study showing that having a firearm in the house is a risk factor for gun death, and offers up this rather obvious result to illustrate the important work which academic public health can offer, and to decry efforts to de-fund that kind of important research. Now, DrRich does not diminish the importance of research whose aim is to improve gun safety. But he does wonder why Hemenway could only come up with an example of productive research which is just a little more helpful than, say, a study revealing that automobile deaths are more frequent in the U.S. than in Romania (where ox-carts remain a chief mode of transportation). If DrRich were grading this editorial request for funding as a formal grant proposal, he would take points off for the effectiveness of the applicant’s (that is, academic public health’s) prior work.

Hemenway’s fundamental sin is conflating “real” public health with whatever the people with degrees in “public health” are doing. “Real” public health consists of flush toilets, water treatment, draining swamps, pest control, well-lit streets, and the like, and tends to have a lot more to do with good civil engineering and fundamental medical research than with “academic” public health.

Some of what the modern experts in public health are doing, DrRich suspects, is quite important and is worthy of funding. But just because the schools of public health split off from medical schools in the 20th century, and established their own academic fiefdom, and commandeered the name “public health” as their exclusive domain, they ought not commandeer the credit (as Hemenway does here) for inventing and building sewage treatment plants, vaccines, or side airbags. Most of the actual “stuff” that makes public health so effective comes from somewhere else. If there’s to be more funding, give it to the people and enterprises that actually invent and develop that stuff.

Call DrRich a cynic, but he suspects that schools of public health really want more money so they can publish academic papers that will justify – or demand – more invasive governmental action to control private behavior, for the good of the collective. For instance, while DrRich does not know anything about Hemenway himself, he notices that a major interest of his Injury Control Research Center is firearm injury. Nothing wrong with that. But he also notices that the Injury Control Research Center gets a big chunk of its funding from the Joyce Foundation, an organization with a strong, self-professed “anti-gun” (and not merely gun safety, or gun control) agenda. One might be forgiven for wondering whether one of the “public health” agendas of the Injury Control Research Center in this regard might be to help justify stiffer anti-gun legislation. Whatever you may think of stricter gun legislation, diverting healthcare dollars to support one side or the other of a fundamentally political issue does not seem like a good precedent to set.

Let the public health experts get their own funding. Dollars that people pay for health insurance – whether through direct premiums to insurance companies or through tax dollars to Medicare, Medicaid, and whatever else is coming down the pike – ought to go for individual healthcare, and not to any interest group that can assemble an argument that whatever it is they are doing benefits the overall health of the collective. After all, anybody – from gym owners to grocers to game manufacturers to medical bloggers – can do that.

3 Responses to “Just Say No to Public Health”

  1. [...] The Covert Rationing Blog submitted a post that talks about the need to differentiate between public healthcare and academic healthcare. Just Say no to Public Health [...]

  2. Actually all Dr Heminway wants is a raise and/or more funding for his grant largesse….Gotta keep those funds coming in for good old Harvard….this is the real 800 pound gorilla in the room .

  3. Gun Safe says:

    I agree with tha last commentor – it always ends up being about money and the biggest players stand to benefit the most.

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