The battle for hearts and minds

A major difference between the public health approach and the beliefs and strategies underlying fields such as human rights or medicine is that public health concerns the prioritization of limited resources. There is a limited pie. Even if you believe that pie can be expanded (it can, at times), it cannot be expanded infinitely, and so at some point in the policy process someone has to make a decision about how to prioritize the resources at hand.

This traditional public health approach overlaps with and gets blurred into human rights and medicine and politics such that the value judgments underlying different claims aren’t always apparent. We have a certain number of interventions that are known to work — they save lives and reduce suffering — but we don’t have enough resources to do all of those things in every place that needs them. If we choose option A, some people will be saved or helped, and some will die. If we choose option B, a different number of people will be saved or helped, and some other group of people will die. The discussion of who will be saved is often explicit, while the discussion of the opportunity cost, those who will not be saved is almost always lacking. Both groups are abstract, but the opportunity cost group is usually more abstract than the people you’re trying to help. These are generalities of course, and in reality there is uncertainty built into the claims about just how many lives could be saved or improved with any one approach.

The problem is this: pretty much everything we do in global health is good. Sure, we can argue specifics and there are glaring examples to the contrary, but for the most part we all want to save lives, prevent suffering, and improve health. No one is seriously against successful interventions when they stand alone: no one thinks people with HIV shouldn’t get antiretrovirals, or children with diarrhea shouldn’t get oral rehydration therapy. Rather, they may oppose spending money on HIV instead of on childhood diarrhea (or in reality, vice versa). Who is comfortable with making an argument against preventing childhood burns? Being against treating horrific cancers? Any takers? So we all argue for something that is good, and avoid the messy discussions of trade-offs.

Thus, much of the conflict in the global health fields is about spending money on X intervention versus intervention or approach Y. Or, better yet, traditional and known intervention A versus new and sexy and unproven-at-scale approach B. I don’t think I’d want to live in a world where all health decisions are made entirely by cost-benefit analysis, nor would I want to live in a world where all decisions on care and policy are made from a rights-based approach — both approaches result in absurdities when taken to their extremes and to the neglect of each other. My impression is that most professionals in global health draw insight from both poles, so that individuals fall somewhere on a continuum and disagree more with others who are furthest away. The tension exists not just between differing camps but within all of us who feel torn by hard choices.

So the differences between the mostly utilitarian public health old-guard and the more recent crop of rights-driven global health advocates aren’t always clear-cut, and they often talk right past each other … or they just work at different organizations, teach at different schools and attend different conferences so they won’t have to talk to each other. To some extent they’re fundraising from different audiences, but they also end up advocating that the same resources — often a slice of the US global health budget — get spent on their priorities. These tensions usually simmer under the surface or get coated in academic-speak, but sometimes they come out. Which brings me to an anecdote to leaven my generalities:

A few months ago I was having a private conversation with a professor, one who leans a bit towards the cost-benefit side of the continuum with a dose of contrarianism thrown in for good measure. Paul Farmer came up — I don’t remember how. I paraphrase:

Resource allocation is the central dilemma in public health. Period. If people don’t get that, they’re not public health. Paul Farmer? Fuck Paul Farmer. He just doesn’t get it.

You won’t hear that in a lecture or in a public speech, but it’s there. I’ve heard similar sentiments from the other side of the spectrum, those who see the number-crunching cost-benefiteers as soulless automatons who block the poor from getting the care they need.

These dilemmas are not going away any time soon. But I think being conscious of them and striving to be explicit about how our own values and biases shape our research and advocacy will help us to collectively reach a balance of heart and mind that makes more sense to everyone.

HIV/AIDS is one of the areas of global health where the raw passion of the heart most conflicts with the terrible dearth of resources we have to fight the demon. Decisions have ugly consequences either way you choose, and, rightly or wrongly, dispassionate research is often anything but. The recent news that pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can prevent HIV acquisition in sero-discordant heterosexual couples is huge in the news right now. Elizabeth Pisani (epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores) hits the nail on the head in this recent blog post. She notes that there are voices clamoring for widespread scale-up of PrEP — treating the HIV negative partner — but that PrEP prevents infection in 60% of cases while treating the HIV-positive partner cuts infection by 96%. Continuing:

That leaves us with the question: who should get PReP? Right now, there are not enough antiretrovirals to go around to treat all the sick people who need treatment. If we’re going to use them selectively for prevention, we should start with the most effective use, which appears to be early treatment of the infected partner in discordant couples. We could also give them to people who aren’t in a couple but who know that they’re likely to get around a bit and might want to stay safe without using condoms. That’s potentially a lot of people; it will stretch our purses. But more than that, it will stretch our political will.

So who is PReP for? We’ve got a better option for discordant couples. We’re not going to want to give it to randy adolescents. We know it works for gay men, but some of the countries where the trials took place would rather thump or jail gay men than protect their sexual health.[…] But I think we would be unwise to rush around talking about massive roll-out of PReP before we actually figure out who it works for in the real world.

Treating people with HIV is good. Preventing infection via treatment is good. Prevention infection via PrEP is good (assuming it doesn’t breed more drug resistant strains and make it harder to treat everyone… but that’s another story). But most voices in the debate have an agenda and are pushing for one thing above the rest. One of them — or a balance of them — is right, but you have to understand their values before that can be discerned. And I think many people in global health don’t even think explicitly about their own values, such as the mix of cost-benefit and rights-based approaches they find most appealing. Rather, we all want to promote whatever we’re working on that the moment. After all, it’s all good.

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07 2011

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