Friday, November 4, 2016

Poetry and Public Health

I am fortunate to have the opportunity to speak often to groups of people with varied interests, backgrounds, and expertise. In just the last several weeks I’ve presented to county commissioners, urban planners, transportation engineers, hydrologists, air quality specialists, National Park supporters, American Indian tribal leaders, psychologists, and data analysts among others. While I tailor my presentations to the specific interests of each group, my basic message is always the same – “you have an important role to play in creating healthy communities and advancing health equity.”

That message emanates from the Institute of Medicine’s definition of public health: “what we do collectively to assure the conditions in which (all) people can be healthy.” From that starting place I use the Triple Aim of Heath Equity to frame how people in all sectors and disciplines could do their work to advance health equity and optimal health for all. The Triple Aim of Health Equity consists of three “simple rules” for addressing complex situations like health equity:
Expand the understanding about what creates health,
Implement a “Health in All Policies” approach with health equity as the goal, and
Strengthen the capacity of communities to create their own healthy future.

The aims are unified around the core value of social cohesion which recognizes that health, well-being, equity, and thriving communities can only be accomplished in partnership and by collective action – action that requires the efforts of all sectors and disciplines.

I had the Triple Aim of Health Equity in mind recently as I prepared to speak to a group of psychologists and social workers. While formulating my talking points, I remembered a lecture in one of my undergraduate psychology classes given by Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who studied social behavior and development and was best known for his maternal separation and social isolation experiments with monkeys. In his talk Professor Harlow outlined how he had worked to transform the field of psychology so that the notions of love and affection were “deemed worthy of psychological study.”

As an English major who was taking a pre-med curriculum, I was particularly struck by one of his comments: “So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in their mission. The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists.” That statement reaffirmed my decision to major in English rather than the more customary pre-med disciplines of biology, chemistry, or mathematics. A mere 50 years later, his lecture about transforming a field and that particular statement encouraged me to quote a passage from the Romantic poet John Keats in my speech to the psychologists and social workers: “Many have original minds who do not think it -- they are led away by custom.” I used that passage to make the point that we often fall victim to the custom of following our usual and long-standing ways of doing things even when they are not achieving our aspirational goals. To illustrate, I noted that our reliance on our traditional medical care and public health practices are not moving us closer to the achievement of health equity and that a transformation of our work is necessary for that change to occur.

Coincidentally, two days later, as I was preparing to talk to a group of data analysts, I came across a statement by Karl Weierstrass, a 19th century German mathematician who (according to Wikipedia) is known as the "father of modern analysis" for his work that led to the modern theory of functions. He said: “It is true that a mathematician who is not somewhat of a poet, will never be a perfect mathematician.” That quotation made me wonder if “It is (also) true that a (public health worker) who is not a poet, will never be a perfect (public health worker).” It didn’t take long to realize the truth of that paraphrase.

In growing our understanding about what creates health, we’ve come to realize that health is determined by much more than just medical care and personal choices. It’s particularly influenced by the social and economic circumstances in which people live, work, worship, and play. And those circumstances/living conditions are dramatically affected by the presence or absence of music, art, theater, dance, and literature of all types.

Consider how poets and novelists have expanded and enhanced our view of relationships, physical and social environments, transportation, housing, agriculture, business, education, and the importance of community. Imagine how different the peace, civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s would have been without the musical soundtrack laid by the Nobel Award winning lyrics of Bob Dylan and the powerful tunes of Motown. Ponder the emotions and the questions raised by a stimulating works of classical and modern art within and outside of galleries. Contemplate the expanded understanding of culture transmitted by dances and dancers from around the world. Reflect on the questions raised about our place in the world by theatrical works like “Death of a Salesman” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Just envision the sterility and blandness of a world without the ability of people to creatively express their joys, sorrows, fears, hopes, and dreams.

Literature, art, music, dance, and theater significantly influence the conditions in which people live, work, worship, and play. Their influence underscores the need to include them in the transformation of the work we must do in public health to advance health equity and optimal health for all. Arts and poetry broaden our thinking and help us see the reality of other people’s existence. They also allow us to imagine how the lives of our fellow citizens can be improved. There is no doubt in my mind that “It is true that a public health worker who is not a poet, will never be a perfect public health worker.” Seeing the everyday impact of these creative forms of expression gives credence to the statement of physician and poet William Carlos Williams,

“It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there."


Monday, September 26, 2016

The Ark of Public Health

Midway through the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) being held in Minnesota, 180 attendees headed to the Mississippi River for an evening of socializing. Despite the dark clouds forming overhead, people were ready, after a day of discussing difficult public health issues, to venture from the conference hotel to spend time interacting informally with colleagues from around the country. Two by two, they filed across the gangplank of an old-fashioned paddle boat for a three-hour scenic and music-filled cruise from St. Paul to Minneapolis and back.

Two by two they came bringing the perspectives of red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives, moderates and progressives, reformists and libertarians, east and west coasts, northern and southern boarders, new professionals and seasoned veterans, executives and line staff, academicians and practitioners, federal and state/local agencies, policy makers and program implementers, racial and ethnic minorities and majorities, men and women, straight and LGBTQ, optimists and pessimists, lumpers and splitters, and a myriad of professionals dealing with issues from AIDS to Zika. Two by two came a menagerie of public health workers with one thing in common (in addition to a desire to have some fun) – a public health vision of how to protect and improve the health of everyone in our society.

One hour into the trip a lightning-created extravaganza rivaling the northern lights filled the sky. Despite its awe-inspiring beauty, the lightening presaged a huge storm. Before long, the deluge arrived forcing everyone into the deckhouse. Sheltered from the rain in a boat equipped to weather this “once in 500 years” storm, the party and the trip continued. Although this storm was not of “biblical proportions,” the analogy was not lost on many of the passengers – it was certainly not lost on me.

As I sat on the boat with my public health colleagues watching the lightening and rain, I reflected on the numerous challenges facing our world: climate change, war, terrorism, interpersonal violence, economic inequities, educational and health disparities, racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, antibiotic resistant organisms, new infectious diseases, burgeoning chronic diseases, and the aging of our society to name just a few. Yet, the approach that we’ve taken over the last several decades has been remarkably ineffective in addressing these issues. Something needs to change. Perhaps it’s time for a new approach – an approach based on the public health principles embraced by the people sequestered on the boat.

Our current approach is built on a worldview anchored on the principle of individualism. From this evolves our reliance on market justice and free market solutions where competition is embraced with its attendant winners and losers and disparities are considered to be due to an inability to effectively compete rather than discrimination. Not surprisingly, health is seen as an individual responsibility. This worldview has led to great technological advances, powerful corporations, and a global economy. It has also fostered the development of a large and expensive health care system to treat individuals when they become ill or disabled. It has also led to huge disparities in wealth and health and to the erosion of social cohesion. Investments in public health and human services have suffered with this approach.

An alternative worldview, one based on public health principles, might provide a better framework from which to address today’s problems. This worldview is community-based and anchored on a shared responsibility for improving health and well-being. It is based on the principles of social responsibility and social justice where cooperation and collective action are essential to improving the well-being of all members of society. Discrimination and disparities are acknowledged and not seen just as individual shortcomings but as societal failures to provide equitable opportunities to thrive. Although this worldview is not currently dominant, it was at other times in our past and it fostered significant benefits for our society. Perhaps it’s time to adopt this alternative worldview in plotting our course for the next 50 to 100 years.

Pondering this notion of worldview, I recalled this statement by Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and poet: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us.” This mirrors what Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone said: “We all do better when we all do better.” This is the philosophy behind public health.

To set aside the dominant worldview in this country and adopt a public health worldview will require a huge shift in societal attitudes. Yet, every day we are being flooded by seemingly intractable problems that are threatening and frightening everyone. Perhaps now is an opportune time to wash away our current approach and make the case for a fresh one, a public health approach, to our contemporary and approaching challenges.

The sky cleared and the rain ended just as the paddleboat docked. As people left the boat, there was a sense of cohesion, community, and optimism among the group. Maybe I was mistaken, but I sensed that this group of public health leaders felt energized and empowered to take on this challenge of creating a vibrant and equitable new world where everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. What better group than public health workers to lead this change two by two, four by four, eight by eight …


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Creating the Good Life in Minnesota August 13, 1973 to August 13, 2016 - Reflections on Wendell Anderson (1933-2016)

(The funeral for Governor Wendell Anderson was held on 8/15/16. A version of this note was published in MinnPost on 8/10/16.)

As a young doctor driving from Pennsylvania to my National Health Service Corps assignment in Montana, I stopped to get gas in Alexandria, Minnesota. Although I had never considered Minnesota as a place to live, the iconic image of Wendell Anderson on the August 13, 1973 cover of Time magazine proclaiming “The Good Life in Minnesota” prompted me to purchase a copy, which I still have today.

The values behind that promise of the good life brought me permanently to Minnesota seven years after that Time article was published, kept me here for 36 years, and guide my efforts as commissioner of health.

Governor Anderson’s vision captured in that cover story remain relevant today. During the past six years, I have frequently referred to it in speeches and use it as the “North Star” for what we must do as Minnesotans to address our health challenges.

What stood out for the Time article’s author was Minnesota’s “civility and fairness, courtesy, honesty, a capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure and responsibility.” In support of that he mentioned there is “…a deep grain of sobriety and hard work, a near-worship for education and a high civil tradition in Minnesota life.”

Community leaders quoted in the article focused on the ability of Minnesotans, despite a great variety of opinions and immigrant backgrounds, to engage in political activity and form coalitions that could further the people’s will.

It was this latter point that most impressed the author. “Part of Minnesota’s secret lies in peoples’ extraordinary civic interest. The business community’s social conscience…is reflected in annual reports: most of them carry a section called ‘Social Concerns.’…Minnesotans tend to be participants in their communities, perhaps because for so long they were comparatively isolated and developed traditions of mutual reliance. Citizens’ lobbies are a real force.”

In the reception room after Governor Mark Dayton’s 2015 State of the State Address, I had a chance to talk with Governor Anderson about that 1973 article. I asked him, “What created the good life in Minnesota?” Without hesitation he responded, “The article accurately captured most of what we were doing. But two things stand out. First, we had a social conscience that led us to invest in the common good; things that benefit everyone, like education. Second, we cooperated. We didn’t always agree, but we cooperated and compromised. That’s an approach I wish was embraced today.”

Governor Anderson helped make some wise public investments 40-plus years ago that are still paying dividends today. I contend that Minnesota is a healthy state today mostly because of those investments. Governor Anderson helped set a tone of “civility and fairness; intellectual adventure and responsibility; a lot of mutual trust; social conscience; and extraordinary civic interest” that helped build a foundation which created “The Good Life in Minnesota.”

For the sake of those generations who follow us, our challenge is to build on that foundation to create an even Better Life in Minnesota. That will take a social conscience, a sense of the common good and a level of civic engagement that sometimes seems antiquated and in short supply these days. My hope is that the spirit of Wendell Anderson resurrects those values and helps us cooperatively build a better Minnesota – one that assures a good life for every Minnesotan.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Capitalism and Democracy: Shaping the American Enterprise and Our Health

One faces the future with one's past. Pearl S. Buck (born 6/26/1892)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has assembled a major exhibition on the “American Enterprise,” which “…chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business—and American life.”

I visited the exhibit just after being part of a Congressional Briefing on health equity where I made the point that the dominant worldview in the United States has led to policies and systems that systematically disadvantage some population groups while advantaging others; contributing to health inequities. Using the Triple Aim of Health Equity as the framework, I challenged congressional leaders to embrace a worldview that is based on community good and social justice rather than on individual needs and market justice. It was with that mindset that I entered the “American Enterprise” exhibition.

From the first to the last display I saw contrasting and conflicting worldviews impacting not just our health but the evolution of American business and democracy. During the “Merchant Era” (1770 - 1850s) when there was abundant land and vast natural resources fueling economic opportunities, the population was mostly rural. During that time, Thomas Jefferson saw the future optimally tied to farming, not factory work, while Alexander Hamilton favored an economy based on industry.

Those differing perspectives have persisted throughout the development and evolution of our economy and society. In the “Corporate Era” (1860s – 1930s) industrialization and business expansion brought major economic growth and social change to the United States, including massive immigration, financial crises, and labor/management confrontations. Business and political leaders “disagreed over the power of big business and whether it endangered the balance between private gain and common good.”

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie argued that competition was good for the country, while Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was concerned that the rights of common citizens would be abridged by the wealthy few. Likewise, President Theodore Roosevelt championed the government’s role in controlling the negative aspects of unbridled big business. In anticipation of a more interdependent world, President Woodrow Wilson suggested the ideal of social responsibility and social cohesion.

In the “Consumer Era” (1940s – 1970s) “production boomed and consumerism shaped the American marketplace. Innovations in technology, expansion of white-collar jobs, more credit, and new groups of consumers fueled prosperity. Business and political leaders claimed consumerism was more than shopping: it defined the benefits of capitalism. This era marked a high point of American productivity and a high standard of living. But it ended with many Americans questioning the promises of consumer capitalism.”

Contrasting worldviews became starker during this time. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith opined that an unregulated marketplace resulted in “private opulence and public squalor.” Philosopher Ayn Rand contended that individuals thrive best in a free and unregulated marketplace. Labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph argued that equality of opportunity could not be left to the marketplace.

In the “Global Era” (1980s – present) the pace of change has rapidly accelerated. Computers, smart devices, and “big data” have affected all aspects of life. There is increased global interdependence expanding markets and opportunities for some while eliminating traditional stability, employment, and safeguards for others.

While some of the debate around the role of government and free enterprise has existed since the founding of our country, the debate now has global ramifications. Economist Milton Friedman advocated for a limited role for government in the American economy while Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argued that access to opportunity was the right of all American citizens.

After two hours in the “American Enterprise” I was acutely aware that the differing worldviews that have jousted with each other over our economy also impact health. Given that socio-economic conditions are the greatest determinants of health, that wasn’t a surprise but I had never seen it articulated so clearly. I also realized that there is no “best” or “perfect” worldview. Every worldview by itself is inadequate for developing the policies and systems needed for everyone to thrive. That’s why the debate that has been going on in this country for 240 years is so crucial. That’s also why it’s essential for those of us in public health, who have a worldview that embraces advancing health equity and optimal health for all, need to be engaged in the debate.  And that’s why the questions that we have framed around the Triple Aim of Health Equity need to be part of every conversation:

Who is at the decision/policy-making table, and who is not?
Who is being held accountable and to whom?
What are the health and equity implications of any decision?
Who is benefiting and who is left out?
What values/worldviews underlie the decision-making process?

As I headed back to my hotel, I wondered how this museum visit would influence the speech that I was to give in five days at the Minnesota Rural Health Conference. The tension between capitalism/economy and democracy/community seemed like a theme to be explored especially as it relates to rural communities. Those tensions reminded me of a statement in "Racism and the Economy" by farmer, poet, and essayist, Wendell Berry – a statement that ultimately framed my speech: “Cultivating Health Equity and Optimal Health for All In Resilient Rural Communities – How the Dominant Worldview of Society Impacts Health.”

“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy."


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sisyphus, Higher Fidelity, and the Work of Public Health

As president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), I’ve had multiple opportunities over the past year to travel to Washington DC to meet with congressional leaders and federal agency heads to advocate for enhanced support for public health and the advancement of sound public health policies. Whenever I’m there, I get a strange sense of déjà vu.

For the 36 years I’ve been in public health, we’ve been asking for the same things over and over again: increase investments in prevention, move “upstream” on issues, take a long-range perspective, address health disparities and advance health equity, focus on social determinants of health, build a strong public health infrastructure at all levels of government, and reform our healthcare system (to name just a few). But the only things that seems to change are the people doing the advocating. In my ASTHO role, it’s now my turn.

These efforts often make me feel like the protagonist in the Myth of Sisyphus. In his 1942 essay on this myth, Albert Camus wrote “The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

Many of us in public health feel like we are in the Sisyphus Business. And in many ways we are. Each year we are confronted with a cohort of 68,000 plus infants born in our state who will be facing many of the same problems as the previous cohort and numerous cohorts before that. Recurrent episodes of infectious diseases, sexual violence, suicides, alcohol and other drug problems, motor vehicle deaths, and natural disasters require us to repeat our public health “best practices” over and over and over again. Just like Sisyphus.

This never-ending struggle made me think of the legend of a couple of individuals who had passionately dedicated their long public health careers to improving the healthcare and public health systems in this country. They happened to die on the same day (and of course they went to heaven – they were public health workers after all). When they got to the Pearly Gates, God was waiting for them. The very first question they asked God was, “Will the United States ever implement a single-payer healthcare system and increase its investment in public health?” And God replied, “Yes, but not in my lifetime.”

The reality of our existence is that there will always be problems to be solved and challenges to be addressed. Some of those issues will be recurrent and, in our rapidly evolving world, many will be new. But all will require our attention, our persistence, and our patience because we will never achieve the utopia toward which we are all working. But it’s the work toward that goal that’s important.

Camus ended his essay about Sisyphus by saying, “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Camus imaged Sisyphus happy and fulfilled because he was focused on the greater good, the higher fidelity. He was comfortable with the fact that his role in the larger scheme of life was to “struggle toward the heights.” That’s what drove the brave mythical Greek to continue his work day after day.

In our reality, every atom, every mineral flake of our public health work is important and necessary even if it often seems repetitious and futile. That’s why I hope that we can embrace the “struggle itself toward the heights” of assuring the conditions in which all people can be healthy as the higher fidelity vision that fills our hearts and keeps us pushing the public health rock up the hill. I’ll embrace that image of a happy Sisyphus as I optimistically continue to do the higher fidelity work. I hope you will too.

Rock on.


Monday, May 2, 2016

When learners become leaders for health equity

“The physician’s function is fast becoming social and preventive, rather than individual and curative…Directly or indirectly, disease has been found to depend largely on unpropitious environments…(which) are matters for ‘social regulation,’ and doctors have the duty to promote social conditions that conduce to physical well-being.” Abraham Flexner, 1910

While working at the Minneapolis Health Department in the 1980s and early 1990s, I staffed an evening pediatric clinic for Southeast Asian refugees at the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) with Sherry Muret-Wagstaff, a wonderful nurse practitioner. In addition to caring for multiple medical issues, our interdisciplinary team addressed the myriad economic, social, and cultural issues confronting our patients and impacting their health. Occasionally, our clinic team would be augmented by a medical student interested in refugee or global health.

In 1989, in the midst of a major measles outbreak, medical student Joia Mukherjee joined our team. Even though she was in the early stages of her medical education, she had a remarkably clear understanding that health was much broader than just clinical care and she helped us identify and address the barriers to measles immunizations for our patients. It was obvious that she had a social justice perspective and a passion for addressing the conditions that impact health. At that time, I wondered how she would use her talents but was confident they would be used well.

I hadn’t seen Joia since our work on the measles outbreak until this weekend when she was a featured speaker at the “Reimagining Social Medicine” conference at the University of Minnesota. She is now the Medical Director of Partners in Health, a multi-faceted international medical non-profit found by Dr. Paul Farmer. The title of her presentation was “Disrupting the Status Quo: Moving Towards Health Equity and the Role of Social Medicine.” Watching Joia at Northrop Auditorium, it was evident that her understanding about what creates health has become even clearer and that her passion for social justice has grown.

She underscored the fact that “We cannot educate the victims of social inequality out of their problems. We need collective action on many levels.” Using the story of “Stone Soup” as the vehicle, she helped the audience understand that “medical care is just the carrots.” Much more is needed to make a rich and healthy soup; including (among many other ingredients) the potatoes of economic development, the meat of peace and safety, the celery of an equitable justice system, the beans of good sanitation, the salt of education, and the water of social cohesion. All in the pot of community. Her story was a vivid illumination of the Triple Aim of Health Equity and a reminder that it took an entire community to make the Stone Soup.

Even though Joia dislikes the term “social determinants of health” because that “sounds so fixed and unchangeable,” she did acknowledge that these conditions are impacted by the distribution of money, power, social policies, and politics and that they can be changed, though not easily. She underscored for the audience “that people with privilege and power have the obligation to speak the truth because the poor and dispossessed have a difficult time being heard when they speak the truth.”

Dr Mukherjee graciously acknowledged that her time with us at HCMC was an “important cornerstone in her formation” in Social Medicine. However, as one of her teachers, it was evident that she had progressed far beyond whatever we provided for her.

Joia ended her talk with an acapella version of “Give Light and People Will Find a Way.” As she led the audience in singing “Listen deeply, Walk together, Seek justice, Be brave, and People Will Find a Way,” I had tears in my eyes. The learner had become a powerful and inspirational leader. That gives me hope that there are more leaders in our midst learning from us every day and we will find a way to achieve health equity.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

National Doctors' Day

Today is National Doctors’ Day, “a day to celebrate the contribution of physicians who serve our country by caring for its' citizens.” Surveys show that Americans love their own physicians and appreciate the great care they receive even as they acknowledge that our medical system doesn't always work as well as it should. Because clinical care accounts for only about 10% of our health yet absorbs 95% of our health resources, some critics have concluded that our clinical care system (personified in physicians) is more of a deterrent than a contributor to our overall health. Fortunately, that view is in the minority because a high quality healthcare system is essential in maximizing the health and well-being of our society. Without excellent clinical care people would be dying sooner than they should, injuries and pain would be debilitating, and quality of life would be diminished.  Certainly, our healthcare system has some major flaws but our work should be to diminish its deficiencies and increase its effectiveness.
However, medical care alone can’t make us healthy. We need a broader approach to health which focuses on creating the conditions in which people can be healthy.  That task is the responsibility of everyone in our society as we work to create the policies, systems, and economic and social environments that give everyone the opportunity to be healthy. Included in that approach is building a robust and high quality public health system that can respond to the needs of our rapidly changing society. And that public health system needs to be integrated with our clinical care systems so that we have a continuum of protection, prevention, promotion, treatment, and rehabilitation services. And who better to help with that integration than physicians who can bridge the divide between treatment and prevention? 
Even though many believe that the idea of the “integration of medical care and public health” is a new concept, those who know the history of medical care and public health realize that a better term would be “re-integration” because at its foundation, health care has always been about both treatment and prevention. The oath created by Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, that many physicians take as they enter the field of medicine states: “I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygeia, and Panacea…” Asclepius is the god of medicine, Hygeia the goddess of public health, and Panacea the goddess of universal health. Thus, physicians take an oath to heal, treat, and prevent for the betterment of all. I can’t imagine a better and more time-tested statement of integration than this.
More recently, “Medscape,” an on-line resource for physicians, listed the most influential physicians of all time.  Hippocrates was on that list. So were the following:
  • John Snow, the founding father of epidemiology, who identified the source of cholera which led to a better understanding of disease transmission,
  • Louis Pasteur who was influential in understanding the “germ theory” of disease, developing pasteurization, and the development of vaccines,
  • Edward Jenner, the first person to deliberately use vaccination to control and eventually eliminate an infectious disease,
  • Robert Koch who discovered the cause of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and designed a way to establish a causative relationship between a microbe and a disease,
  • Jonas Salk who created the first polio vaccine,
  • Benjamin Spock who underscored the importance of parenting and child development,
  • Cicely D. Williams who highlighted the importance of nutrition and education in the prevention of childhood diseases,
  • David L. Sackett who advocated for evidence-based and data-driven medicine,
  • Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the U.S. to become a physician and who confronted discrimination throughout her life and helped train subsequent generations of women in the practice of medicine,
  • George Papanicolaou who developed a screening test for cervical cancer,
  • Ibn Sina/Avicenna who founded the field of preventive medicine, and
  • Ignaz Semmelweis who used vigorous statistical methodologies to demonstrate how the simple act of handwashing dramatically lowered death rates after childbirth.
All of these physicians embraced public health principles in their practice and impacted the health of people far beyond those they saw in a clinical setting. They were giants in their field because they embraced a broader vision of what a physician could and should do to help their individual patients and all of humanity. They modeled what Rudolf Virchow, the father of social medicine, said about becoming a physician: “Medical education does not exist to teach individuals how to make a living, but to empower them to protect the health of the public.”
Virchow was also prescient in his statements about health equity and health in all policies. “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.”  The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction.”  I think Virchow would have fit in well at MDH.
Finally, Charles Nathaniel Hewitt, the physician who founded the Minnesota Department of Health, spoke succinctly about the need for the integration of medicine and public health. “Prevention first, cure if you must; capacity to do in both directions.”
Without diminishing the contributions of doctors who focus on treatment of injuries and diseases, my heroes in medicine are those who took Dr. Hewitt’s admonition to heart and who embraced both treatment and prevention in protecting and improving health. Those are the colleagues I will commemorate and celebrate today on “National Doctors’ Day” because they have worked hard “to serve our country by caring for its' citizens.” Please join me in celebrating the physicians who are with us every day on the frontline of public health!