Day 4 - Let's distinguish health from health care: what factors truly determine our wellbeing?

James Leigh, Curtin University

Let me set the scene for you: the sun was back after days of clouds, the mountains were clear. I’d eaten my wholesome, ritualistic French breakfast consisting of croissants, Nutella, milk bread and yoghurt cake; and I’d dusted off a coffee. I was ready.

Today marked the fourth official day of the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA72) in Geneva. Having reached the back end of the week, I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was extremely excited about the upcoming meetings with civil societies, non-government organisations and World Health Organisation (WHO) staff to further enhance both the breadth and depth of my understanding of global health priorities. On the other hand, I felt a strong sense of bewilderment and sadness as the time in Geneva flew by, and I tried to absorb each opportunity without it escaping me.

My Thursday consisted of three predominating events, coupled with a range of meetings and exploration to fill the time in between. Beginning with a breakfast at the Restaurant Vieux-Bois, sponsored by NCD Child, I was involved in discussions to promote youth-led efforts in addressing non-communicable diseases (NCDs). I was especially touched by the young speakers from Indonesia, South Africa and Kenya who discussed their advocacy in the fields of tobacco control, mental health and access to medicines, respectively. This event was critical in its empowerment of myself and fellow youth delegates from other countries, to voice and act on our public and global health concerns. The event also provided an ideal environment to network with fellow delegates with similar interests from all over the world – newbies and veterans – whom I’m hoping to reach out to going forward with the Assembly and my policy proposal.

The subsequent two events occurred after lunch and just prior to dinner; discussing the equities, innovations and financing of universal health coverage (UHC), and community engagement in the facilitation of health, respectively. Instead of boring you with a chronological recollection of these events and their major takeaways, I instead want to expand on the overarching lessons of my time at the WHA72 and how it has influenced my malleable perception of the vast breadth of issues at large in our world.

UHC has been the central theme of WHA72 and is an all-encompassing concept that applies to every country regardless of wealth, environment, climate or culture. Although targeted at impoverished, developing nations, UHC can be contextualised to Australia and other developed nations. With respect to our homeland, universal health coverage is necessary for our marginalised and vulnerable populations; namely, our Indigenous and refugee and asylum seeker populations.

Another key theme of WHA72, has been the inter-relationship between climate change and health, which gained a lot of traction with multiple events delving into the issue, and will only increase in significance at the Assembly. Though traditionally being labelled as an environmental issue, climate change is now acknowledged as a problem for everyone and every sector – health being no exception. Issues such as disaster response, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels affecting agriculture, are but a few of the examples where our planet’s changing climate is disabling health security. For myself, with no exceptional understanding of climate change, it was highly confronting to discuss the health catastrophes due to climate change and to hear from people directly impacted by such events, such as Fijians. I feel privileged to have had this revelation, as I can now better appreciate the extent of the climate’s impact on health and utilise this knowledge in my everyday life and future as a medical practitioner.

Synthesising these two key areas of action, I have developed a profound appreciation for the concept of “health” and how it differs from “health care”. Health incorporates every aspect of life – be it diet, exercise, safety, culture, spirituality, education, hygiene, etc. Health care, on the other hand, refers to the specific reaction to an abnormality in health. Proactive measures target the health of people, whilst the reactive measures come under the health care umbrella. WHO Director General Tedros’ mission of universal health coverage assumes the proactive approach – investing in primary health care and infrastructure and education to prevent health abnormalities. This then reduces strain on healthcare and more expensive practices. This distinction has been my key take-home message from the week so far.

Having learnt so much already, I'm very eager to see what tomorrow brings as my final day at the Assembly.