The past two weeks have been pretty rough, so yesterday was a perfect day of relaxing with perfect weather in tow — I spent all day eating, walking around Central Park, and generally basking in the joy of the first free day I’ve had in awhile. The past few weeks have been crazy for me because of two difficult exams, an abstract deadline, and a flood of extracurricular commitments, but I’ve still been keeping up with the news (hard not to with the flood of constant news post-election) and I’ve been noticing a lot of discussions about the future of healthcare. No matter where you stand politically, it’s clear that the healthcare landscape is likely to change in the upcoming years, and as a future physician, I think it’s important to be knowledgable about health policy and public health.
I’m extremely passionate about public health (definitely more than the average medical student), and have been since college, when I studied abroad for a semester through a public health program. My interests intensified throughout the last two years of my college and culminated in my decision to use my gap years (I plan to write more about this in a future post because I did pursue a non-traditional college -> gap years -> medical school route) for a M.P.H. degree. Although, like I said, this is an untraditional route that probably isn’t for most people, I learned a lot about public health that convinced me that public health is an essential field that all health professionals should have a basic understanding of. Public health is a term that encompasses an extremely broad, diverse field, and I don’t necessarily think that all health professionals need to know everything about public health — there are public health professionals for this. However, I do think that public health is pervasive in medicine and the two are so intimately intertwined that it would be a disservice for any health professional to go through their training and their careers without any knowledge of public health and an understanding of how integrating medicine and public health is beneficial for both ourselves and our patients.
One aspect of public health that most people, particularly pre-med and medical students, are aware of (whether consciously or not) is health disparities. Community service and working with the underserved is a big part of the pre-med experience and the medical school experience that I firmly believe makes us better physicians, and this is often the first exposure to public health that we get. Health disparities exist all over the world. There is often a great deal of attention to developing countries and the immense health disparities that are experienced there, but there are also a lot of health disparities in the United States. Studies after studies show that low-income individuals are less healthy, have worse outcomes, and suffer from many barriers to healthcare and there are fundamental structural, societal, and economic factors that contribute to these disparities. Related to this is another field of public health — health policy. Health policy is what’s really been in the news lately because much of health policy is linked to political processes. The ACA was able to grant many more millions of Americans more coverage, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t still health disparities. There are still many individuals who do not have health insurance or are underinsured. The election results mean that it is very possible the ACA will be replaced or at the very least, modified, and this poses a lot of uncertainty for healthcare professionals. At my medical school, our faculty members have been telling us that it is important for us to keep abreast of the news about health policy because patients will inevitably have many questions about any changes they will face in their coverage, and how it can affect their care and their financial situation. Changes in health policy can also profoundly affect healthcare professionals, whether it’s by affecting the salaries and reimbursements or the treatments and care of patients. Medicine isn’t an isolated academic field — medicine involves a complicated web of various other fields and public health is a major one. I believe medicine and public health cannot exist independently without each other, which is why I think it’s so important for us, as future or current healthcare professionals, to educate ourselves on public health issues.
I could really go on for hours about public health, but my point is, so much of public health is important to us as health professionals, but regrettably, in my opinion, not many of us know enough about public health as we should. I’ve been so pleased with my medical school because we’ve had some lectures and sessions on biostatistics, epidemiology, and the ACA, which I think are great and completely necessary knowledge that will help us all become great physicians. But I hope that many students will seek out to educate themselves beyond the limited scope of the curriculum, because I really believe that we can better provide for our patients if we are knowledgable about the healthcare system and about the larger social, economic, and political issues that can impact our patients’ interactions with the healthcare system and its subsequent effects on their health.