Health entrepreneurs today tend to give themselves very high grades, and seem surprised when their creations fall short of expectations due to a disconnect with funders or regulators with legal authority. But Medicine isn’t fair, and genius is not that common.
What other conclusion can you draw from the thousands of references and citations featuring Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and his wild ideas on how to heroically treat Yellow Fever in 1793, but likely never heard of Dr. John Henry Rauch. The former signed the Declaration of Independence but directly or indirectly contributed to many an unpleasant death. The latter saved millions and helped the AMA and the AAMC find their way out of their post-Civil War professional wilderness.
Dr. Rauch’s career, its’ span and breadth, is startling and could well serve as a yardstick for medical imagineers today. Born in Lebanon, PA in 1828, he received his Medical Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and then opened a practice in Burlington, Iowa. He was there in 1850 for the birthing of the Iowa State Medical Society, and with their encouragement published (just five years after Iowa achieved statehood) the epic “Medical and Economic Botany of Iowa” listing 516 species, fully 23% of the known flora of the state today.
Two decades later, he was onsite in Chicago from October 8-10, 1871, when 3.3 square miles of Chicago burned to the ground taking 300 souls with it, and managed the emergency medical aftermath for the city. By then he was all too familiar with conflagration and disaster, having earned the imprimatur of lieutenant-colonel from the Union Army as assistant medical-director of the famed Army of Virginia during the Civil War.
Currently, India spends about $20 per person per year on healthcare and spending more once seemed like a peripheral concern, taking a back seat to basics like food and sanitation. However, in the past decade, as the Indian economy has grown and wealth followed, Indians are increasingly demanding access to “high quality” healthcare. But what does “high quality” mean for a country where a large proportion of the population still goes hungry? Where access to sanitation is so spotty that the Supreme Court recently had to decree that every school should have a toilet? What is “high quality” in a setting where so many basics have not been met?
It turns out that “high quality” may mean quite a lot, especially for the poor. A few weeks ago I spent time in Delhi, meeting with the leadership of the Indian health ministry. I talked to directors of new public medical schools and hospitals opening up around the country and I met with clinicians and healthcare administrators at both private and public hospitals. An agenda focused on quality rang true with them in a way that surprised me.
The broad consensus among global health policy experts is that countries like India should focus on improving “access” to healthcare while high income countries can afford to focus on the “quality” of that care. The argument goes that when the population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, you don’t have the luxury to focus on quality. This distinction between access and quality never made sense to me. When I was a kid in Madhubani, a small town in in the poor state of Bihar, I remember the widespread impressions of our community hospital. It was a state-run institution that my uncle, a physician, once described as a place where “you dare not go, because no one comes out alive”.