Category Archives: Health

Nurturing insight

I want to try something, and I am hoping some of you readers will participate.

In a nutshell, the idea is that we spend a little bit of time during a week (even if it is just 20 minutes) in a situation that nurtures insight.

It is possible for ideas to deeply change our world. How can we nurture the development of the ideas that might be game-changers in the coming months/years/decades?

My approach has two parts:

  1. Learn deeply and broadly about the world, including the major problems and proposed solutions. Useful insights generally require that they be based on accurate perceptions of reality.
  2. For some period of time, create the conditions under which deep insight into issues becomes more likely.

The central thrust of this ‘experiment’ has to do with what constitutes the conditions in part 2).

I imagine that there is a fair bit of individual variation on this front, but I am going to throw out some broad statements that I believe are reasonable based on what I know about human attention and education.

  • Our culture is becoming increasingly dominated by subject changes. Our attention is being chopped up into smaller bits as we interact with increasingly fast and engaging social media. I claim that deeper insights are not likely to come about through spreading our attention more thinly or by multitasking more. Whatever advantages this culture change offers, we are hopefully already taking advantage of them.
  • Teachers often complain about the quality of students in schools today. A central concern is the student’s ability to concentrate on one thing and to demonstrate the fact that they are capable of insight into the material at hand. Psychology has shown that our attention span is getting shorter. I believe these facts are all closely related. I believe the lack of insight in current students is due in part to the fact that they are not used to simply rolling an idea around in their heads for many minutes at a time. In short, I believe that the shortening of our attention spans is connected with reduced abilities to garner deep insight.
  • Distraction seem to have a complicated relationship with insight. While distractions do represent a fragmentation of attention, they can also be the foundation for connective insights – where we put different ideas together in new ways. These connections can help us understand the ideas and the relationship(s) between them.

I propose that each of us spends some amount of time this week (I suggest at least 20 minutes) in a situation that is well-suited to the development of our personal insight. For me this might be walking through Parc Mont-Royal, sitting at a desk with a blank piece of paper in front of me, or even meditating. I suggest that people do what they are comfortable with, but again I have some specific ideas that might help:

  • Get comfortable.
  • If you have a burning desire to interact with something else like friends, the Internet, a book, social media, etc, write down what you want to do on a piece of paper, tell yourself that you will do it later, and continue with your efforts to gain insight. In light of this, it can be helpful to have somewhere to write nearby.
  • Be content. Getting upset probably won’t help.
  • Be your own person. Don’t bother thinking about what other people might think of what you are thinking.
  • Embrace the fact that your thoughts may be mostly about your own mundane concerns. Let them go where they will. Your thoughts will eventually turn to the things you care about most.
  • Follow your trains of thought wherever they may lead. Don’t be afraid of thinking anything. We might like some thoughts more than others, but any one of them might hold the key to a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and our world.

I would like to hear from all of you about what your insights were and in what circumstances you achieved them.

Forgetting who we are

Our identity exists at the core of everything that we do in life. Our sense of self, as hard as it is to discuss in language and science, is fundamental to everything we experience.

How is it possible then, to forget who we are? You might be thinking about the various forms of amnesia present in studies of psychology and sensationalized in our fiction. Anyone with personal experience with the loss of a friend or family member to any form of amnesia or dementia understands how deeply painful it can be.

Here I am talking about the everyday experience of forgetting who we are. I am talking about the sense of losing touch with our innermost desires and dreams. I am talking about how the external demands of the world can drag us further and further from a state in which our wishes and hopes for our lives are being realized by our actions.

Who are we?

If you ask someone who they are, they might tell you their name and what they do for a living. Pressed further, they might tell you about their family situation and hobbies.

Who are we really?

This question has nagged me for years. It was in the writings about humanistic psychology that I found the answer that has satisfied me the most (so far). The self is not a thing to be identified and scrutinized. The self is an evolving experience.

So you and I, or at least our sense of our selves, is a set of continually transforming experiences. We experience our innermost self – and the outside world – simultaneously. For most experiences, these two worlds are inseparable.

How can you forget an evolving experience?

You might ask, “Well, if I accept your claim that my ‘self’ is an experience, how is it possible for me to forget who I am?

You are happening every day. Every time you make a choice or think a thought, you are happening. Every time you feel happiness, pain, or sadness, you are happening. Every one of these experiences resonates with your being to greater or lesser extent.

We all have activities that we prefer over others. Broadly speaking, each of us will have a set of experiences that we identify as pleasurable, and a (mostly distinct) set that are painful. We generally organize our lives around the idea of maximizing our well-being in whatever manner seems right to us.

Our dreams and aspirations are often deeply connected with those things that we like to do or states of being that we would like to enjoy.

We forget who we are by forgetting to experience those things that resonate deeply with us.

Acting towards our dreams

Our choices shape our experiences. With every experience, we are becoming something new. Some experiences are deeply connected with our dreams and aspirations while others are not.  If our actions are aligned towards the achievement of one of our dreams, then our experiences will be filled with some of the pleasure that pursuing our dream gives us. This experience reinforces our choice if it is pleasurable, but can cast doubt on our path if it is painful.

A painful process can cause us to give up on a dream – for good reason! If our best assessment of the situation is that the pleasure we might attain in the future is not worth the pain we feel and foresee, it is a very sane choice to allocate our efforts elsewhere.

This can be particularly painful if we are chasing a prerequisite to a dream. Perhaps we think we need a degree in order to work in a field that we love. Perhaps we feel that we need to save up a lot of money so that we can be safe. Perhaps we don’t want to go hiking before we get in better shape. The list of prerequisites can sometimes seem endless.

Attaining prerequisites can be painful, as many of us know from our own experience. This pain often brings with it feelings about the meaninglessness of our pursuit. It may be that we don’t actually want the degree or the knowledge, we just want the job. Perhaps we don’t actually want money, we just want to feel safe. The pain involved in attaining our prerequisites can be enough to cause us to give up on the dream itself.

Again this can be a completely sane choice to make. What we have to guard against is the feeling of disconnection from our dream that we experience because we are preoccupied with the present moment. The process of attaining a prerequisite might feel very different than the experience of the dream itself. Being a student during your achievement of a degree often feels very different from the experience of working in the field you have chosen.

If we aren’t experiencing a facet of our dream, we are slowly losing connection with it. Dreams can be tenacious, holding on for years or decades without substantial attention. I believe however that it is in our personal best interest to keep our deepest dreams alive and happy with experiences oriented towards them.

If you are getting a degree, remember to save some time for reading about, or volunteering in, your field of preference. Find media that inspires you, and create a stash of it that you can use to bring back the feelings that galvanize your passions. Stay in touch with the dream so that you can remember who you are.

Forgetting

When our experiences are consistently not oriented towards the attainment of our dreams, we begin to forget what that taste of our dream feels like. We begin to forget what it feels like to be in the process of becoming who we want to be.

How does this happen?

These answers will not be surprising. Tales of the soul-deadening 9-5 job are rampant. University professors continue to express the sentiment that more and more students are simply doing the minimum they can to get by and finish their degree. Almost everyone knows a person who is so caught up in the concept of money that they cannot enjoy what they have – or would have – if they would loosen their death grip on their life a bit and learn to spread their wings.

Rigid, or unyielding, demands on our time can slowly erode our ability to be ourselves (as we knew ourselves to be). We forget a lot of who we were if we consistently do things that are not congruent with the dreams and passions that we held.

Realizing that you have forgotten

Have you ever had a very intensive section of your life – perhaps final exams, deadlines at work, or a crisis among family or friends – after which you found that you did not know what you wanted to do with your time?

Have you ever worked a very hard day, or week, and returned home to unwind, only to find yourself unable to muster the energy to do anything but watch TV or movies?

Individual occurrences are not indicative of a problem. If you are truly burnt out and want to just zone out, who is to argue with you? In these cases we tend to placate ourselves with those things that take very little energy. This in part explains the enormous appeal of all forms of passive entertainment we have access to in the modern era.

The problem is that habits quickly form to fill the gaps in your time. Many of us work jobs that we aren’t particularly passionate about. We then have to use our limited free time to pursue those things that make us genuinely happy. Instead of watching TV you might really actually want to be writing a play, painting a canvas, studying physics, or doing yoga.

If you want to spend your time in ways that you believe serve your long-term happiness more, then pay attention to those little twinges that you feel deep down. Grab hold of the twinges and genuinely examine them. Do you really want to practice your dance steps? Yes? Well, fire up some music and get to it. Do you really want to read more? Yes? Grab that book that you are two thirds of the way through and make a sprint for the ending.

I have often felt guilty when I feel those twinges, but guilt is not something we need to hold on to. Learn what you can from your past, and let go of the guilt. If you are genuinely trying to pursue the things that you care the most about, I can guarantee that you will be able to minimize the intrinsic guilt you feel about your actions or inactions.

One of the best pieces of advice I have heard regarding guilt of this sort is: think of it as a success. If you are feeling guilty, it means that you have successfully remembered that you wanted to do something differently. Try to use this as an encouraging thought. Next time you will be able to remember earlier, and perhaps feel more strongly that you want to make a different choice.

I have forgotten

What is the problem with forgetting? Can’t we just dig through our memories and remember what we were passionate about before?

To some extent this is true. You will likely be able to remember what you were passionate about in the past. You may even be able to recollect a bit of what it felt like. However, it is most likely that these remembered passions will feel hollow compared to what you feel they should feel like.

Why? Because you have fallen out of practice in experiencing your passions. Our experience tends to be very emotional and transformative, while our recollections of the past tend to be inexact and fleeting. It can be very difficult to recapture a passion that you have ignored for some length of time.

Passion is hard to muster on demand. If you have been slaving away at other aspects of your life for a long time, your previous passions can feel dessicated and empty. Be patient. Give yourself some time to take it easy and explore what you are feeling. If you enjoy yoga or any form of meditation, those can be a great tool for letting your experience of yourself come into sharp focus. If you remember what you liked before, try to tiptoe back into those activities. Patience is key because unreasonably high expectations tend to directly lead to negative self-evaluations that damage one’s self-esteem and cast doubt on what might be a deeply-held passion. So your first golf tee shot flies off into the shrubbery? That’s life, and you know it. Try to hold off negative self-evaluations as you explore, or re-explore, your experience.

Stay in touch or reconnect

I believe that in order to truly live the life we want to, we need to actively follow at least some of our passions. The best case is that in which we can stay in touch with them throughout our lives. In this case we are in no serious danger of forgetting what it feels like to pursue our dreams.

However, life happens. Whether we like it or not, many of us have had the experience of losing touch with those activities that we used to love, and the dreams that we used to chase. If we don’t make efforts to stay in touch with our passions and remain open to new ones, we may end up living a life that we honestly think is pretty empty and unsatisfying.

If you are headed down this path, I implore you: Take some of your time and put it towards rediscovering yourself. You may find oceans of buried passions that can help you fill your life with meaning. You may find that you have grown and changed. The ideas that once inspired you may have faded, and unexpected thoughts may have replaced them. You may have lived half your life since you last really gazed within, so it may not be surprising to find that you have grown into someone new. You will, however, still be the authority on who you were, and who you are. Your choices dictate much of how you will grow from this moment forward.

You might like to create a list for yourself. What are some concrete activities that you can do this week that will reignite your passion? Post that list right on your TV screen or computer so that next time you sit down for some passive entertainment you are reminded of your other options – options that will be more invigorating and remind you of who you are, and perhaps help you glimpse who you want to be.

Now

Experience yourself as you are. The past is useful for understanding, but experience always exists in the present moment. All of us experience at least mild amnesia. No one’s memory is completely perfect. To some extent, our past is hazy to us all. While the future tends to be even more inscrutable than the past, it is the future over which we have some control.

Knowing ourselves can only take place in the present. So what are you doing right now?

Excellence relies on opportunity and hard work

I recently read the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book focuses on people whose abilities and successes are so far outside the scope of normal experience that our society tends to consider them lifeforms that are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

The central message of the book is that these people, while appearing so different from the rest of us, owe their success to a combination of talent, luck and good opportunities. Gladwell points out that our society is fixated on the concepts of personal initiative and intrinsic talent, despite the inability of these two factors to truly explain the spectacular success stories that we are surrounded by.

Talent vs Practice

When I talk about talent, I mean the differences in natural (innate) abilities among different human beings. Defined in such a manner, talent definitely exists. Human beings are different from one another in a myriad of ways. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say “Thankfully!” to this obvious fact.

Where things get a little bit hazy is when we consider to what extent talent predicts our level of success in life. On one extreme there is the argument that talent predicts all of our success in life. I am not really going to consider this argument in great depth, since it seems unable to explain either the facts of which I am aware or my personal experience. If anyone is passionate about the concept of talent/potential, I recommend the movie Gattaca.

I think most people will admit that success has something to do with both talent and practice. All other things being equal, those who work harder tend to be more successful. The main question is, to what extent does our ability or skill depend on talent, and to what extent does it depend on practice?

First of all, there are some abilities that are pretty much entirely innate, such as physical height. Assuming good nutrition, the adult height of a human being seems to be based entirely on genetic features. I would rather call this sort of quality an ‘attribute’ rather than an ‘ability’. For this analysis, I will focus more on the term ‘skill’, which I would regard as a subset of ‘ability’.

Ericsson and Charness

Gladwell cites some famous research on the subject of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson and Neil Charness have researched this subject extensively, and their work is regarded very highly in social science circles. In fact, during my psychology degree I had to read one of their papers: Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition. I thought it was an excellent read and recommend it to anyone who finds this subject interesting.

I would summarize the research in the following way: Most of the observable difference in performance (in almost any field) is a direct consequence of the practitioners spending different lengths of time engaged in deliberate practice. The more you practice, the better you tend to be. The effect of practice seems to massively overshadow the effect of talent in the subject areas that Ericsson and Charness studied.

Additionally, Ericsson and Charness found that the amount of dedicated practice necessary to achieve grandmaster level skill (equalled only by perhaps a few people in the world) is remarkably constant across all skills and cultures: 10,000 hours. This averages out to about 3 hours per day for ten years. Someone who dedicates themselves to this amount of practice will, at the end of ten years time, be among the best in the world at their chosen skill.

I would like to add a qualification to this conclusion based on my own experience and knowledge. When considering elite performance such as Olympic athletes, it seems clear to me that even slight advantages offered by genetics can be telling when two dedicated athletes go head to head. It is a well-known fact in most athletic endeavors that gains in measurable ability tend to be large for beginners, but very small for experts. A small difference in ability that is due to innate factors could be as important as months or even years of training in certain skills. When exploring the ultimate reaches of human ability, even small differences in talent can be important.

Human Intelligence

Gladwell argues that in some areas of human endeavor, we encounter what are called threshold effects. His most extensive example of this is human intelligence. It has been estimated that Albert Einstein had an IQ of around 150. There are actually a fair number of people who have been measured to have IQs higher than this value. Does this mean that they are ‘smarter’ than Einstein?

IQ does a relatively poor job of differentiating between very intelligent people. Once into the genius range above IQ 120 it is very difficult to predict test performance or academic success using the measure of IQ. Gladwell calls this a threshold effect. Once people are above IQ 120 or so they are smart enough that other factors begin to be more important if we are to try to predict their level of success. For more info on this subject, read the book! 🙂

Opportunity

Perhaps the central theme of the book is opportunity. The people who are recognized as being the most successful in our world tend to owe their success to important opportunities that they were offered during their lives. Gladwell draws on examples from a variety of industries including law, high-tech computing, and science. In every area he shows how these now-prominent people were offered important opportunities at a time in their lives when they were able to take advantage of them.

In closing, Gladwell knits together the various threads of this work into a cohesive picture of how we can try to make our society better. Primarily what he is driving for is a change in the way we perceive achievement in general. Great achievement is accomplished through a combination of practice, luck, and talent. If we as a society accept this broader view of personal accomplishment, it will be possible to improve our lives in many meaningful ways. Gladwell cites a number of specific examples, along with his supporting data.

Current academic and sport selections all too often confuse ability with maturity. Thanks to the cut off dates for each year’s class or competition, the children who are the oldest in a given year have a very notable advantage in both academics and sports. In part this is because we tend to provide more advanced schooling or training for the more advanced children in each year. This leads to a widening gap in ability that started as only a small difference in ability that was primarily based on age.

If we wish to create the environment that is most conducive for development of our children, we will try to challenge them to think for themselves, split their yearly classes and sports leagues into at least 2 or 3 sections according to age, and make a distinct effort to prepare them for the opportunities that our society will offer them (intentionally or unintentionally) in the coming decades.

Overall, I think this is a book well worth reading. Gladwell’s look into the nature of success and achievement is worth considering. It is interesting to see how our conventional wisdom about human development so often fails to explain the reality. Outliers attempts to convince us to look more closely at how we, as both individuals and as groups, choose to structure our lives, institutions, and societies. We can all help to improve our collective lot in life if we understand more about human development and the role that our collective culture plays in our progress.

Life Changing Book on Time and Life

I recently finished a fascinating read. The Time Paradox is a book by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd about how our personal perspectives of time have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives.

You have have heard of Zimbardo before, he is one of the more famous social scientists in the world thanks mostly to his fame for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment. He has written a major work on the subject of “Understanding how good people turn evil”. On the first page of my copy, he says that writing this book, The Lucifer Effect, was not a labour of love. I find this understandable; investigating the ways in which human beings can be turned evil is an extremely dark subject. I think the world owes Zimbardo thanks for pushing through the mire to discover how we can reorient our institutions towards bringing out the good in all of us rather than the evil.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Zimbardo briefly during his visit to Regina in November 2009. While I was pretty sure that his presentations would be good, I didn’t expect to be blown away by how caring and conscientious of a person he was. I observed him in person-to-person interactions far from the stage in which he was extremely kind, caring and patient with every person who asked him a question or for advice. I thought to myself, here is a man whose time is very valuable, giving it away to people because…well I hesitate to speculate…but I think he really just wants to help people. Even after a five-decade teaching career in prestigious universities, he still cares about people he meets on the street. I was profoundly moved by this experience.

Now, back to The Time Paradox.

Overall, this book was transformative and challenging. It lead me to understandings about my life, and the lives of those around me, that are profound and clear. I originally thought that I probably would not learn very much from the book, being a reasonably thoughtful metacognitive person. I turned out to be wrong, and this book fundamentally changed the way I look at the world.

What perspective did I gain from this book?

Time perspectives are important. A significant part of the book is dedicated to making0 clear just how important they are. What also comes along with that knowledge is a firm understanding of how far reaching the consequences of ignorance about time perspectives can be.

Time orientation is a fundamental life perspective. Anyone reading this article of mine will have no trouble understanding the different ways of looking at time presented in the book. The perspectives in the book are roughly based on positive and negative views of the past, present, and future.

The question for each of us is: Which time perspectives do you live, and how do they affect your life?

Respect for differences

Throughout the book there is a genuine respect for the fact that while social science can collect general data about the results of habits that people have, it cannot predict the outcomes for any one individual. The wisdom of this book must be applied by each person to their own personal context.

Time therapy (applying the ideas from this book in the field of clinical psychology) seems to be incredibly powerful. However, for me the most important aspects of this book are those that have to do with each of us as individuals. Each of us lives our own journey through time, and this book is a good step towards understanding ourselves a bit better.

Balance is the key

There is no cookie-cutter solution to perspectives of life. The best answer is not any particular time perspective, but a combination of all. The authors espouse a very balanced time perspective based on the best data that they have.

What does a ‘balanced time perspective’ mean? Well first of all it means that there is more than one time perspective present, because fixation on any single time perspective tends to lead to large problems in life. Fixation on only one perspective means you are missing out on a lot of your own experience and potential.

I would summarize the balanced time perspective as follows. It is a mental and emotional state in which you:

  1. Regard your future filled with quite a bit of hope, though tempered with the knowledge that you have to spend effort (and thought) now to create a better life for yourself later.
  2. Keep in mind your happy memories because they help you stay happy and live in a hopeful present, but keep enough realism about the past to learn from mistakes and hardships.
  3. Live today well, and be happy with the moments you have. Be aware of the central importance of the present moment. Everything happens now and no other time really exists except within our minds. We must live now, but we can also choose to shape our future and call to mind our happiness and lessons from the past.

What about you?

I scored the following on the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory.
Past-negative: 2.00

Past-positive:  4.89

Present-hedonistic:  3.80

Present-fatalistic: 1.22

Future: 4.00

Transcendental-future: 3.00

What are you? Take the test here.

Well worth your time

I needed to read this book. The insights I have gained from reading have helped me towards a more balanced and happy life. I firmly believe that this book has the potential to help others do the same.

You can find The Time Paradox for a pretty decent price (and in several different formats such as Hardcover, Softcover, and Kindle Edition) on Amazon.

Global Health: Availability of Appropriate and Affordable Medicines

This week’s course focused on Access to Medicines. The presenter was lawyer Rachel Kiddell-Monroe. (Her complete presentation is available here.)

Yale and HIV Drugs

In 2001, Doctors without Borders (or Médecins sans Frontiéres, MSF) approached the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) to ask for a cheaper generic version of their HIV drug, d4T. The drug was available in developed nations for $1,600 per year per patient. However, MSF was trying to work in South Africa, and needed the drug to be affordable to make a real impact. BMS refused the request, saying that they required the money to support research and development of new HIV drugs.

So MSF went to the source. A professor at Yale University, William Prusoff, was the discoverer of the d4T treatment. As is common practice, the university had sold the d4T licence to BMS, allowing them to distribute the product as they wished. It is for this reason that Yale, too, decided it could do nothing for MSF. Its hands were tied.

Enter students. Groups of students at Yale University organized in protest. After all, their tuition money was the reason that Prusoff was able to discover d4T in the first place. Professor Prusoff was also upset and wrote an editorial in the New York Times stating his position that, “d4T should be either cheap or free in sub-Saharan Africa.”

At this point, BMS was aware of the negative publicity over the subject and changed their decision. Within a year the cost of d4T for South Africa was reduced by 96%.

The drug d4T is no longer the preferred treatment for HIV in developed nations. However, in developing nations it is still part of the typical cocktail of drugs – thanks in part to its affordability.

Access to Medicines

It is estimated that 2 billion people in the world lack access to life-saving drugs – that is one third of the world’s current population. In sub-saharan African, about half of the population lacks access.

But lack of access to medicines is caused by many factors. As we see above, a major factor is Affordability, but of equal importance are Availability and Appropriateness. Let us look at each of these separately.

Affordability

In 1995 an international agreement was made, called TRIPS, that required the honouring of international patents (some countries, e.g. Brazil, did not allow patenting of pharmaceuticals). The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) “establishes minimum levels of protection that each government has to give to the intellectual property of fellow WTO members.”

In one fell swoop, the agreement (as of 2005) ended any manufacturing of generic drugs for cheap, local distribution, and increased the profits of patent-holding pharmaceutical companies.

There have been cases where governments cannot afford to provide medicines for the needy in their country. These countries knowingly broke the TRIPS agreement to provide adequate medicines for their citizens. Some in return, as is the case with Thailand, were penalized via trade barriers with the United States. The Abbott drug company even withdrew its pharmaceuticals from the country.

Availability

The medicine needs of the developing nations differ from those of the developed nations. For example, malaria barely affects the developed nations, whereas a malaria medicine is greatly needed in some developing nations. This is true for many other diseases, dubbed Neglected Diseases.

But drug companies refuse to create new and/or improve old drugs for these diseases. The financial incentive is not there. What results is the use of old medicines with terrible side effects or even attempts to use animal formulas. Failing even these last-ditch efforts, the only course is simply NOT treating patients.

Appropriateness

Rachel Kiddell-Monroe was working with MSF in Rwanda. She was touring a local hospital when she was brought to a barred-off wing. Her inquisition into what was behind the barricade gave her this answer: people waiting to die. The patients behind the barricade were mostly HIV patients (without a proper diagnosis). She was struck by the knowledge that if these people were in one of the developed nations they would not be dying. Instead they would have access to the medicine they needed and would probably be leading normal lives. But all Rachel could do, along with the help of her crew, was sit with these people, holding their hands, so they could die with dignity.

The issue in this case was a lack of appropriateness of the HIV drugs that had been created. Even if they could have been afforded, they would not fit the needs of the population. Most times the drugs make some requirement, e.g. that you take them with meals, three times a day. If you have no access to three meals of food, or even necessary drinking water then the drug may not work or even show adverse effects.

Drugs, like so many other things, needs to be created with a context in mind.

Hopeful Future

In 1999 Médecins Sans Frontiéres won the Nobel Peach Prize. With the money from the prize the organization started the initiative Access to Medicines. That initiative lead to the availability of the d4T drug mentioned previously, and continues to be a major player in providing medicines to those who need them.

Universities have also continued to play a leading role in universal access to medicines. The group Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) aims to:

  • promote access to medicines for people in developing countries by changing norms and practices around university patenting and licencing
  • ensure that university medical research meets the needs of the majority of the world’s population; and
  • empower students to respond to the access and innovation crisis.

The Access to Medicines debate isn’t just a hope for headache-remedying Tylenol, it is an issue of life and death. And life that is not just the avoidance of death but the opportunity for a truly meaningful existence.

Joseph before and after treatment for TB and HIV

An Introduction to the Canada Health Act

In 1984 Canada and the provinces agreed to five principles as part of the Health Act. Originally it was agreed that the budget would be split 50 – 50 (federal funds – provincial funds), but this has since changed with more money being provided by the provincial governments.

These five principles, as you will see, are open to interpretation – and actually opened to formal discussion as of December 14th, 2010.

Health Act Principles (1984)

  1. Public Administration
    The government will control the operation of the health care system on a not-for-profit basis.
  2. Comprehensiveness
    This depends on the province. For example, in some places physiotherapy is covered. Provinces can also have different criteria for allowing patients into nursing homes.
    Truly comprehensive services across the country include the following, however criteria leading to these services may differ:

    • Physician Visits,
    • Hospital Stays; and
    • Hospital Dental Services.
  3. Universality
    All Canadians have access to health care – 100%.
  4. Portability
    Canadians can move around and still get health care, even out of country. However, if payment is required then the province will adequately reimburse the resident/patient at the rate of the home province, NOT the rate where health care was received.
  5. Accessibility
    There should be no barriers to health care.

The two principles that are most often multi-interpreted are Comprehensiveness and Accessibility. It is imperative that we take a closer look at these.

Comprehensiveness

As stated above, the truly comprehensive services that are available for every Canadian citizen are Physician Visits, Hospital Stays and Hospital Dental Services. Let us look at each of these in a little more detail.

Physician Visits

Physicians are paid on a fee-for-service basis (i.e. they get paid per medical act). These fees are negotiated between the government and the medical association (the act is called Physician Remuneration…and yes, there is a lot of paperwork). For a visit to the General Practitioner (GP) that occurs in his/her office (i.e. the patient is an ‘outpatient’), the fee is $37.00. For a visit that occurs in a hospital (i.e. the patient is an ‘inpatient’), the fee is $17.00. This difference exists to help physicians cover the overhead costs of running an office. Keep in mind that being ‘seen’ by a doctor could involve a five minute conversation or a simple sweep of your chart and vitals.

Hospital Stays

Hospitals are expensive. They involve the costs of personnel, pharmaceuticals, food, building expenses, etc. It is averaged that a single day at the hospital costs $1000.00. This is why hospitals are constantly trying to reduce the length of hospital stay required before and after procedures. For example, new mothers without complications are sometimes out the next day.

Hospital Dental Services

Dentistry in general does not fall under health care (although if we consider cost-effectiveness it really ought to). However, dental services can be part of emergency procedures at which point they would be covered through the Canada Health Act.

Accessibility

Oh, this is so complicated. Here, you take a look:

12.1.a. In order to satisfy the criterion respecting accessibility, the health care insurance plan of a province must provide for insured health services on uniform terms and conditions and a basis that does not impede or preclude, either directly or indirectly whether by charges made to insured persons or otherwise, reasonable access to those services by insured persons.

Or, insured persons (i.e. tax payers) should not have barriers to health care. One barrier is finances, therefore patients should not be met with user fees or administration fees (direct charges) in order to access health care.

I know you’re wondering why some services (e.g. Québec walk-in clinics) are allowed to charge money. The answer is simple, you don’t NEED to go to that clinic. There exists a clinic that will not charge you fees (even if it IS the emergency room where you will wait 6 hours to be seen, where your condition will potentially worsen, and which will decrease your economic productivity – sigh). In Québec clinics charge $95.00 a visit. Compare that to the $37.00 physician remuneration I mention above. That is a ‘user fee’ or ‘facility fee’ or ‘service fee’ of $58.00.

So, if you have money you can visit a faster user-fee-charging clinic and get back to making money. If not, then either you live with being ill or cram into a free clinic with other sick people and wait – one of the reasons that socio-economic status is an excellent indicator of health. These two speeds, called a two-tiered system, are just the beginning of provincial rule bending in regards to the Canada Health Act.

Personal Note:

I would like to propose that finances are NOT the only issue of accessibility. Consider rural areas. Where I come from the closest ‘hospital’ is over 30 minutes away – and that is only if it is open. If a physician is not available I may need to continue ANOTHER 30 minutes (that’s a hour if you’re adding) to reach the next hospital. The act of getting to a doctor suddenly becomes difficult, so there are three choices:

  1. Call an ambulance
    The ambulance (expensive) must travel the same 30 minutes to get to you (20 minutes if they are heavy-footed) and then turn around and go back. Remember that irreparable brain damage occurs after four minutes.
  2. Travel
    Elderly, handicapped or poor patients would see travel as a infringement to the accessibility of their health care. Without a car, gas, a licence and the physical ability, these distances cannot be traversed (especially since there is no local transportation in this area).
  3. Avoid
    Ignoring a small health concern will likely lead to it escalating (see option #1).

This personal note is corroborated by the Canadian government’s September 2006 Report “How Healthy are Rural Canadians?”:

The reality of living in rural and remote areas is that there are fewer health care services. Geographic isolation and problems with access to and shortage of providers and services are multidimensional problems. For instance, poor road quality combined with greater periods spent on the road not only contribute directly to higher incidence of injury, but also compromise access to health services. Moreover, difficult economic circumstances, travelling time to the city and the lack of car ownership can affect access to and demand for health services.

Global Health, Well-Being, and Conflict

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

In Global Health terms, health has a lot to do with conflict. Today, 90% of deaths in wars are civilians. Conflict used to be confined to inter-state wars (consider the world wars), but increasingly regular are intra-state conflicts (feuds within political boundaries).

The United Nations (UN) has always had the mandate to take care of Refugees (those who leave their country’s borders). However, just recently has the UN finally been mandated to take care of Internally Displaced peoples (those who don’t leave their country’s borders). This means that the numbers have increase substantially, considering that Refugees number somewhere around 9 million, while Internally Displaced peoples amount to over 22 million.

Also important to consider are the causes of conflicts. Sources of conflict include race, religion and natural disasters. Consider these images of Lake Chad which indicate the physical source of strife that has escalated to the Darfur conflict.

The shrinking of Lake Chad

(Image found at A Town Square)

The impact that a source (such as drought) can have is a direct result of susceptibility. Impact includes things like:

  1. Increase in morbidity and mortality
  2. Forced migration
  3. Disease
  4. Increasing competition for resources

Number Four is best exemplified by this image:

Haiti - Dominican Republic Border

(Image found at Wiley GeoDiscoveries)

This is the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic – the raging deforestation in Haiti is extremely evident.

The first section was presented by Dr. Kirsten Johnson, MPH.

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Dr. Tarek Razek (rightmost white man)

(Image from Outpost)

Dr. Tarek Razek is a medical doctor as well as the Director of the McGill Trauma Program. In his spare time, Dr. Razek is a trauma physician with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and educator with the Canadian Network for International Surgery (CNIS).

Dr. Razek notes that Canada is odd. That we really are rare in terms of our consideration of multiculturalism as normal. This facet of our society leads to Canadians being excellent members of Emergency Response Units (ERUs). This was imperative in the past when Canadians were deployed as part of ERUs of other countries. Just recently Canada has acquired its own Emergency Response Unit (including kits, pharmaceuticals, tents, teams, etc.) which has just been sent to Haiti to help fight an outbreak of cholera.

Safety is a continued issue for Dr. Razek, who has a family. The threat of death, injury and kidnapping is real. The position of trauma surgeon in a conflict area is not entered lightly. But Dr. Razek acknowledges that his work is necessary and rewarding.

Dr. Razek tells the story of his experience doing surgeries 10 hours a day for 7 days a week. Each of his surgeries required the permission of the patient (or guardian). As such, there needed to be translators present. Because the Red Cross camp was located in an area that was surrounded by multiple tribes it seemed like it would be a challenge to decipher which translator was needed. However, tribal customs differed in an interesting way in that area, so translators were able to lift the shirts of the patients and use the tribal markings on their chests to determine the correct dialect.

Trauma is an unrecognized epidemic. It is the leading cause of death, and in 2020 will become the number one cause of years of life loss. Dr. Razek has many stories and pictures to share detailing bullet wounds, bullet wounds, bullet wounds, and landmine injuries.

He shares this story. In some areas where landmines are prevalent, parents make the youngest child walk in front of the family. If that child is too light to set off the landmines then the child will be weighted down. Dr. Razek goes on to explain that the father and the mother are necessary entities in the family, without which the family would cease to operate. The older children are also necessary members because their labour abilities help bring in revenue for the entire family. The youngest child is dispensable – not yet offering tangible benefits to the family unit except for through its dispensability.

Dr. Razek’s presentation was one that offered insight into global emergency care. And more importantly he offered palpable stories and feelings to a room full of medical personnel who are also interested in working in a global context.

Next Week: Access to Essential Medicines

Learning about Health Care

Dear whoever is interested,

I am currently enrolled in Health Care Management, a Master’s course taught at McGill University. Some of you have shown an interest in the subject as well as voiced very interesting and provocative questions and ideas.

In response to that interest, and to aid in my own learning, I am going to make weekly(ish) posts with summaries of what was discussed in the class the previous week.
If you are at all interested in reading or commenting please do so. Discussions are where learning really happens, and where ideas are formed. It will also give us the opportunity to share some field-specific data and perhaps formulate changes that could help improve the system for all of us.

Thank you for your interest. I hope to chat with you soon.

-Jacenta

Health Care Management
Summary – Week 1
January 5th, 2011

In health care management there are five key economic principles that come into play:

  1. Costs
    There is no limit to how much money we can throw at health care. Increases in health care spending could continue until immortality is achieved for every citizen.
  2. Outcomes
    There need to be results (presumably benefits) of the health care system.
  3. Effectiveness
    The relationship between Costs and Outcomes is of the utmost importance. Only when a treatment/idea proves adequately effective should it be funded through health care. Take, for example, the cancer drug Avastin. Canada may refuse to offer this (extremely expensive) drug to cancer patients because it seems that in the end it only lengthens lives by two weeks. (Note: This is an average. For some, it may be longer. If there was a clear determining factor for its success it could be used more discerningly, thus increasing its effectiveness.)
  4. Trade Offs
    With a fixed budget, health care is a constant juggling act. When we give more money to pharmaceuticals we must take money from somewhere else. On an even grander scale, if we want more money for health care do we take it from education? transportation? security? Or just increase taxes?
  5. Structure
    Health care can also be manipulated through its structure. Using non-monetary incentives and organization techniques the system may be altered and potentially improved.

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Now let’s talk about Health: What makes a healthy society?

An initial reaction is often to say Access to Health Care. Interestingly, this only accounts for 25% of health. Biology accounts for another 15% (including things like gender and genetics). And Physical Environment covers 10% (including clean air and water, food and shelter).

The most influential determinant of health at a whopping 50% is Social and Economic Environment. Topping this list is socio-economic status (i.e. how much money you make), but also important are your social support netoworks (e.g. do your friends keep you physically active? do they smoke or drink? do they engage your mind?).

Clearly these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, your socio-economic status will often dictate what physical environment you live in and therefore the quality of your air, food, water and shelter.

Also note that this is only one of the percentage-per-category correlations. Other researchers present the data differently. For example, a chart produced by the Georgia Health Policy Centre uses data from the McGinnis and Foege publication “Actual Causes of Death in the United States” (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1993). This chart rates the determinants of health as:

51% – Lifestyle (smoking, obesity, stress, nutrition, blood pressure, alcohol, drug use)

20% – Human Biology

19% – Environment

10% – Health Care

Note: The research article used to support the above percentages only provides data for the Lifestyle section (~50%). It is unclear how they calculated the other sections. Also note that the original article states that Sexual Choices are a high ranking Lifestyle factor.

To hammer home the idea of social factors playing such a crucial role in health, take a look at this video: Judy Heyman Public Health (highly recommended).

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To Truly have Health Care in Canada, we need Canadians to care about health.

Let’s start with food.

(Image from Greek Reporter)

In 2008 the British Medical Journal published a meta-analysis of the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean Diet which focuses on whole grains and fresh fruit and vegetables has an astonishing impact on longevity and health. In fact, adherence to the Mediterranean Diet has “been found to be associated with a reduction of overall mortality and mortality from cardiovascular diseases and cancer” (2008, pg. 1).

To completely convince you, take a look at these (from the 2008 article):

Figure 1:

Risk of all cause mortality associated with two point increase in adherence score for Mediterranean diet. Squares represent effect size; extended lines show 95% confidence intervals; diamond represents total effect size.

Figure 2:

Risk of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease associated with two point increase in adherence score for Mediterranean diet. Squares represent effect size; extended lines show 95% confidence intervals; diamond represents total effect size.

A Health Care System alone does not ensure health. As we see in the numbers, without the other systems we support as a society (such as nutrition and lifestyle as part of our education system) we would have decreased health. Clearly a trade off from the education sector to the health sector would be detrimental  – just like reducing the number of preventative general practitioners (GPs) in order to increase emergency room use, which we would never do…errr…more about this next week.