Turning the Health World Upside Down

There’s a growing acceptance of the links between health, wealth and wider society. Not just the impact of wealth inequalities on measures like life expectancy. But the importance of fixing the underlying social causes of medical problems, rather than just administering the medicine and wondering why the patient doesn’t get better.

It’s convenient to frame this as a Third World problem. And while it is, it’s also a problem within and between developed countries. For example, people from one area of Glasgow (in Scotland) live a decade longer than people residing in another area of the same city, in spite of (theoretically) having access to precisely the same medical expertise.

A most basic analysis of Great Britain (and much of the developed world) reveals an organizational chasm, which most people are not prepared to cross: For example, medical services and social care provision are completely different activities – separate funding, differing structures, responsibilities, professional bodies. Even though individual “patients” shift seamlessly between them. It’s an organisational situation made worse by the difficulty both groups seem to have integrating with anything – in my experience (largely failing to integrate public transport into health and social services), a combination of:

  • The intrinsic (internal) complexity of the service itself, which leaves little mental capacity for also dealing with “external” factors.
  • The tendency to be staffed by those with people-orientated skills, who are often less able to think strategically or in abstract.
  • The dominance of the government, with a natural tendency towards bureaucracy and politicized (irrational) decision making.

Complexity is the biggest problem, because it keeps getting worse: More (medical) conditions and treatments to know about, higher public expectations, greater interdependence between different cultures and areas of the world. Inability to manage growing complexity ultimately threatens modern civilization – it will probably be one of the defining problems of the current age. So adding even further complexity in the form of understanding about “fringe issues” is far from straightforward.

Beyond these practicalities lurk difficult moral debates – literally, buying life. Public policy doesn’t come much harder than this.

Into this arena steps Nigel Crisp. Former holder of various senior positions within health administration, now a member of the UK‘s House of Lords. Lord Crisp’s ideas try to “kill 2 birds with one stone”: For the developed world to adopt some of the simple, but more holistic approaches to health/society found in the less developed world, rather than merely exporting the less-than-perfect approach developed in countries like Britain.

To understand Crisp’s argument requires several sacred cows to be scarified: That institutions like the National Health Service (which in Britain is increasingly synonymous with nationhood, and so beyond criticism) are not perfect. That places like Africa aren’t solely populated by people that “need aid” (the unfortunate, but popular image that emerged from the famines of the 1980s). That the highest level of training and attainment isn’t necessarily the optimum solution (counter to most capitalist cultures). If you’ve managed to get that far, the political and organisational changes implied are still genuinely revolutionary: To paraphrase one commenter, “government simply doesn’t turn itself upside down”.

While it is very easy to decry Nigel Crisp’s approach as idealistic, even naively impractical, he is addressing a serious contemporary problem. And his broad thinking exposes a lot of unpleasant truths. This article is based on a lecture Crisp gave to a (mostly) medical audience at the University of Edinburgh. And the response of his audience. The lecture was based on his book, Turning the World Upside Down: the search for global health in the 21st Century (which I have not read). Read More