by Bill Frist

The Week

America's national debt is ballooning at a worryingly rapid pace. But some programs ought to be spared the chopping block

POSTED ON APRIL 24, 2012, AT 7:10 AM

Government spending is about to get chopped — no matter who wins the next presidential election. President Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney have both prioritized deficit reduction, which, of course, is a worthy goal. However, not all cuts are created equal. And many surveys put global health at the top of the list of things to slash. That's a mistake, and here's why.

1. Global health initiatives save lives abroad?Investments in global health pay off a lot more quickly and dramatically that you might think. PEPFAR, initiated by President George W. Bush and strongly embraced and expanded by Obama, was the largest direct investment any country has made in defeating a single virus (HIV) or disease. Our taxpayers' leadership has provided 7.2 million people with access to lifesaving, anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, 8.6 million with treatment for tuberculosis, and more than 260 million — mostly kids — with anti-malarial resources. This U.S.-led historic initiative to prevent and fight disease has directly saved millions of lives, put kids back in school, and helped rescue entire societies from collapse over the past eight years. 

Saving lives and societies leads to better and stronger relationships for trade, enterprise, and foreign investments. It enables economic growth, democracy, accountability, and transparency in these countries. 

2. Global health initiatives protect U.S. families?Deadly microbes know no borders. They are just one plane ride away. HIV did not exist in the U.S. when I was a surgical trainee in 1981. But since then, it has killed more than 600,000 individuals here (and 25 million globally) and infects another 54,000 U.S. citizens each year. It arrived here from Haiti, migrating there from Africa.  

Imagine the devastation avoided if we had identified HIV and our National Institutes of Health had figured out how to treat the virus a decade before it arrived on our shores. Our current global surveillance and engagement system might have done just that.

3. Global health initiatives enhance national security?A hopeful people are a people who shun terrorism. And nothing destroys hope more than a society without a future, hollowed out by diseases that decimate middle-aged civil servants, police, doctors, and teachers. A bleak and nonproductive future for an individual sets the stage for societal discontent and chaos.

Our investments in public health reverse these tragedies, and fuel the smart power of health diplomacy. Kaiser Family Foundation surveys have repeatedly revealed that more than half the public thinks U.S. spending on health in developing countries is helpful for U.S. diplomacy (59 percent) and for improving America's image in the countries receiving aid (56 percent).

4. Global health initiatives are a bargain?Treating HIV costs a tenth of what it did a decade ago, and the costs continue to plummet. Globally, of the 8 million children under 5 years old who will die this year, half could be treated and cured with a low-cost intervention. Pneumonia, the number one killer of young children in the world, is easily treated for less than a dollar! And the No. 2 killer, diarrhea, can be prevented by increasing access to clean water. The price? For $20, we can provide clean water to a family for 20 years. For $14, we can fully vaccinate a child. 

5. Global health initiatives are simply the right thing to do?I was born in Nashville by the luck of the draw. It could just as well have been South Africa, where life expectancy is only 49 years. We are all the same. Lifting others up no matter where they live is part of what makes us American. It's what we do. Americans overwhelmingly say the U.S. should spend money on improving health for people in developing countries "because it's the right thing to do." Nearly half (46 percent) say this is the most important reason for the U.S. to invest in global health.

Yes, out of control entitlement spending and a deep recession have put everything on the chopping block. But let's be smart about where we cut and where we don't.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at BillFrist.com.

Andrew Pfeffer Pic 1

by Andrew Neil Pfeffer, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana 

Prior to my arrival, I had the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with one of the Guyanese EM residents as they visited Vanderbilt. In one of our various discussions, he brought up a fact that surprised me; the majority of Guyanese in the world do not reside in Guyana. Instead, they are scattered throughout North America, namely New York and Toronto. In his family for instance, only 10-20% remained in the nation, with the rest living in one of New York’s five boroughs. When I asked him if he would eventual join them in the US, he said no. His colleagues, however, had a much different approach.

After being here, I can understand why that sentiment exists. Guyana is a nation in flux. On one hand, it is quite modern; many people has cell phones, internet is widely available (I was in the middle of the rainforest and had WIFI), and the dissemination of information can occur rapidly and quickly (via Facebook, or other methods). Many of the excesses of our time are at the fingertips of a large portion of the population, especially in Georgetown. Unfortunately, it seems luxury has outpaced necessity, with the end-result being a palpable level of frustration. This is quite evident in the sphere of healthcare. The physicians here harbor much of the same knowledge and skills that we possess and they know what interventions are needed to treat the most complicated of medical or trauma patients. However, they have very limited resources in terms of pharmaceuticals, imaging, and surgical support to adequately treat the conditions they see. I’ve only been here a few days and I have often felt handcuffed, I couldn’t imagine how hard it is on the local staff to feel constrained to that degree all the time. When faced with the options of either staying home and going through the growing pains (which may take decades and is by no means guaranteed), or moving to a place (the US or Canada) that has already arrived and that boasts a seemingly thriving ‘local’ Guyanese community, the decision to stay can seem illogical. This is probably why many young, educated folks, especially doctors, leave, which in turn, only serves to delay progression further. It’s a detrimental dynamic. 

He says he’ll stay. Being a part of the construction of not just the specialty of Emergency Medicine, but of his nation, is something he cannot leave. It’s a brave stance to take, and I genuinely think the new residency program in Emergency Medicine will help him avoid succumbing to the temptation to leave. For me, I am honored to be able to help support this institution, even though it’s in a very minor way.

In the end, while it’s a baby step, it’s still a step, and they will eventually add up. 

Ifeoma - Hospital Visit

by Ifeoma Ozodiegwu
East Tennessee State University: College of Public Health
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo

I paid a visit to the local hospital called Makelekele, the second largest hospital in Brazzaville where  I visited the different sections in the hospital and spoke with the staff. The hospital was a little crowded due to the explosion that occurred a few weeks ago. A number of people are still receiving treatment from the hospital.

My purpose for visiting the hospital was to gain a better understanding of the health status of the Congolese people especially as it regards tobacco-related diseases and view the state of their health facilities.  Following a tour of the hospital I chatted with the exceptionally nice staff and enjoyed an informative discussion the Medical Director of the Hospital, Dr. Loussambou. The Director explained to me that from their observation, the leading cause of morbidity was bronchitis and pneumonia while the leading cause of mortality was malaria and heart attack. He also explained the national strategy to combat malaria. When I inquired about the prevalence of cancer of the lung, he said that it was quite low.

My visit to the hospital opened my eyes to the sacrifices made by the medical personnel in the Brazzaville; they are able to do much with so little. The personnel seemed interested in their patient’s conditions and the well-being of other staff. They also did their work with so much joy such that it was infectious.

Finally, during the week, I completed my research paper on health workforce norms. I am also done with reviewing the monitoring and evaluation committee report. In the next final 2 weeks, I am looking forward to having the employee service event and putting finishing touches to my work.  Expect to see all the pictures from the event.

By Nadine Harris, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana

All I can say is, I don’t know how they do it.   I have finished my time in A&E and have been on female medical ward for the last week and a half. The female medical ward is housed in a new facility that opened several months ago.  There are approximately 8 patients per room.  Patients have to bring their own sheets, clothes, toilet paper, water, and any other supplies that they might need.   There are many nurses and even more nursing students around, but I have yet to figure out exactly what they do.  Care by the nursing staff is haphazard at best.

It is so busy here!  There are two interns who take care of 60-80 patients at any given time and every 3rd day they do a 36 hour shift.  Rounds every morning are quite exhausting and interminable.  We either help the interns pre-round (this may involve checking vitals, starting IVs, updating orders) or we round with the sole internal medicine consultant (in the country!) during bedside teaching rounds.   There are about 20 medical students who attend these rounds and it is the only semi-structured teaching they receive during their internal medicine rotation. I spent some time going over a few cases with them and though they are eager and enthusiastic to learn medicine I worry about how they will develop the skill sets needed to identify and manage disease processes.

Unfortunately, because the wards are so busy and it is often only the interns around to manage patients, many things are missed or overlooked.  Labs take a long time to return and once they do show up may be forgotten until the next day on rounds.  A patient’s clinical status may deteriorate without anyone recognizing or alerting a physician of the change for hours.   There is a lot of death and, unfortunately, sometimes it seems all but inevitable.  

Despite all the obstacles present, the best part about being here is the patients I get to work with.  There is such a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the care that they receive and readily acceptance and trust even when things do not go quite right.  There is such strength and resilience in the human spirit.

Yesterday was the last day of the rotation and I spent part of the day in medical records going over a couple charts of patients that I had heard about or taken care of.   As I sat on the hard wooden bench, in the cloying sticky heat waiting for them to pull the records, I looked around and saw the tall shelves of recorded births and deaths at GPHC for the last 50 years.  It was particularly striking to me at that moment that somewhere amidst all of that paper, the record of my birth could be found.  Looking at GPHC currently, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like so many years ago.  Nonetheless, I feel like I have come full circle and I never could have predicted it.  I am grateful for the opportunity to be here and I look forward to creating opportunities to come back to teach, work and help build up the healthcare of Guyana.

by Ifeoma Ozodiegwu
East Tennessee State University: College of Public Health
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo 

Ifeoma - BrazzavilleIfeoma - WHO Team Meeting

It has been two months now! Yes, Two months! Over the past two weeks, I have focused on writing and designing the layout for country-level reports on the Status of Implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) for two countries-Madagascar and Lesotho. While writing the report for Madagascar, I observed that the tax on the most widely sold brand of tobacco is 76%. “Impressive”, I thought, given the difficulties and politics involved in the implementation of such tax policy. Upon inquiry, I learnt that Madagascar has the best practice in Africa. Madagascar also has health warnings on tobacco labeling and packaging covering more than 50% of the package and labels. The issue of health warnings reminded me of the events in the US where the implementation of graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging and labels were ruled as unconstitutional by the courts. I hope tobacco advocacy groups continue to fight for the adoption of such policies. Policies recommended by the FCTC has been shown to reduce tobacco consumption and in turn, premature mortality from tobacco use.

The Human Resources for Health Unit has also assigned me to write a literature review on health workforce estimation, with the aim of determining if it can be done on the regional or country-level, for use by the Regional Director. Whereas, the Planning, Budgeting, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit asked me to review their annual report and budget as well as create a summary of performance indicators for Budget Centers (Regional and Country offices) to be used in their annual report. All these have kept me on my toes. 

By Rebecca Pfaff
Meharry Medical College
Riobamba, Ecuador

My first week here in Riobamba, Ecuador has been fantastic.  In the mornings I attend rounds in the pediatric hospital with residents and attendings.  Rounds are a lot like in Nashville except that x-rays are read by holding films up to the light and, of course, everything is in Spanish.  Also, an epidemiologist joins us, and sometimes a dentist, though they rarely contribute to the discussion.  It is amazing what an international language medicine is.  Even with my limited Spanish skills I can follow, and occasionally contribute to, rounds with relative ease.  After rounds I go with Dr. Cruz to his clinic on the first floor of the hospital.  I enjoy working with Dr. Cruz both for his obvious skill as a practitioner and enjoyment of teaching, but also because he speaks very clearly, making it easier to follow him. In clinic we see 8-10 patients to fill out the morning before he and the other pediatricians head to their private clinics in the afternoon.  There are no well child visits in the clinic, only hospitalization follow-ups and sick visits.  Riobamba is the capital of Chimborazo Province and surrounded by mountains populated by small villages and farms.  Families bring their children in from long distances to see the doctors.  Pulmonary complaints are by far the most common with gastrointestinal a close second.  In fact, the hospital has two large main rooms for inpatients, one for pulmonary complaints and one for gastrointestinal, with smaller rooms for infectious disease, neonatology, and other complaints.  There is no importance given to privacy either on the wards or in the clinic. Curious mothers will follow the physicians as they round in the one large room containing 6-8 patients and in clinic other patients, nurses, pharmacy representatives, and administrators all walk into the examination room while the doctor is seeing patients.

 After clinic I return to my host family’s house for the most important meal of the day, lunch.  Everyone comes home from work and school to eat together.  After this I head off to my medical Spanish language course.  We are all in the fourth year of medical school in the U.S. and excited about starting residency soon but enjoying Ecuador a great deal in the mean time.  I can't believe I have already been here a week, these 11 weeks are going to fly.

By Nadine Harris, MD
Vanderbilt University: Department of Emergency Medicine
Georgetown, Guyana

It is good to be back in Guyana.  It has been a week since my arrival and there is a feeling of returning home.  Although I left this country when I was very young, the culture, the food, the sayings, even the hot humid climate and cooling ocean breeze are all so familiar and welcomed. 

I have been working in A&E at Georgetown Public Hospital, the country’s tertiary care center, for the last 5 days.  I am amazed at the broad spectrum of pathology that we see in any given day - some of these have included cerebral malaria, snake bites, herbicide poisoning, tetanus, advanced HIV, acute myocardial infarction, infected diabetic foot ulcers, and strokes.  What is most impressive to me is how many complications I have seen from poorly controlled chronic medical conditions, many of the same disease processes that we deal with in the US.  As an internal medicine resident, I think about my own panel of patients back home and how aggressively we are taught to manage diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and coronary disease.  Unfortunately, this is not possible in Guyana in large part due to lack of a trained physicians to take care of these people and poor medical records (surprisingly, many of the first line drugs that we use to manage chronic illness are available here).  Guyana, like so many developing countries, continues to struggle with “brain drain” as more and more trained professionals migrate in search of a more economically secure way of life.  In the medical profession, those who are left behind do the best they can, but are often overworked and undertrained. 

Working in a developing country with so limited resources certainly requires that I adjust the way I think about and approach a disease process; this is easier said than done.  The emergency medicine residents do the best that they can to be aggressive in the resuscitation of very sick patients - unfortunately, often with so few ICU beds, ventilators, equipment for monitoring, it is difficult to sustain a high level of care for the critically ill and many do not survive.

There is just so much that we take for granted in the U.S.  I met a 17 year old girl who was brought in to A&E by her parents with 6 months of a progressive motor weakness and spasms that left her wheelchair bound and in significant pain.  She had been in and out of the hospital, with essentially negative work up including lumbar puncture, plain films and CT head.  She had seen a private neurologist and needed a MRI.  Due to the cost she has not yet gotten the test and even with her consultant advocating her case to the ministry of health, the outcome is still pending.  Getting such a simple test that is so easily accessible to us in the U.S. seems an almost insurmountable hurdle to overcome in the work up of her disease.

It is humbling experience to be here and is a great reminder of what a privilege it is to be able to practice medicine and to serve those who need the most help.  I am constantly being reminded to how much I don’t know and how much I can learn from my patients. 

The nation's highest court is about to judge the president's signature legislative achievement — and it's not just politicians who are invested in the outcome

The Week
MARCH 13, 2012, AT 6:45 AM
by Bill Frist, MD

Is the new health care law constitutional? You might think it doesn't matter — or at least, that it doesn't matter to you. But the fact is, the Supreme Court's decision on President Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA) will almost certainly affect you directly.

How, exactly? For one thing, the court's decision could play a key role in determining our next president and possibly your next congressman. If you are poor, the ruling may decide whether or not you have coverage. If you are not poor, it will impact how much you pay for health care. If you own a small business, it might determine if you must purchase health insurance for your employees. And if you work for a large business, it may determine whether you still receive your insurance from your employer. If you're a doctor, it will likely affect your reimbursement. If you're a patient, it will determine your benefits.

On March 26, 27, and 28, the Supreme Court will hear extensive oral arguments on the constitutionality of the ACA. This is the culmination of 26 states filing suits in federal district courts and opinions from seven federal appellate courts. A final written opinion likely will be delivered in June, 18 months before the individual mandate kicks in and just five months before the presidential election.  

If the individual mandate is ultimately deemed constitutional, then for the first time in our history, you will have to purchase a product to live in America.

The ACA is a highly charged law that, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average, is viewed unfavorably by half of Americans. The law essentially does two massive, controversial things: (1) Mandates that individuals purchase health insurance coverage, and (2) expands Medicaid by 16 million enrollees. This expansion means almost one in four Americans will be on Medicaid, the government program originally intended for our poorest citizens. If you don't purchase insurance, you will pay a fine of $695 per adult and $347 per child.

Together, these provisions will reduce the uninsured by 32 million, but will still leave an estimated 23 million individuals uninsured in 2020.

The focus of the Supreme Court opinion will be on the constitutionality of these two issues, though two additional items will also be considered. One is whether the entire law falls if a part of it, such as the mandate, is ruled unconstitutional, and the other is whether the court has jurisdiction to rule at all now, since the law has yet to go fully into effect.

There is already plenty of discussion on the legal merits of the case, particularly as it regards the taxing power and the Commerce Clause. But what are the very real implications of the upcoming ruling? Here is what to look for:

1. If the court upholds the individual mandate, it will take effect 18 months later — unless Congress acts to repeal or postpone it (which won't happen as long as Obama is in the White House). If the individual mandate is ultimately deemed constitutional, then for the first time in our history, you will have to purchase a product to live in America.

2. If the individual mandate is ruled unconstitutional, the court will then decide whether to let the rest of the law stand, including the expansion of Medicaid and the largely popular individual insurance reforms. If the rest is left intact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that 16 million of the 32 million Americans expected to gain insurance under the law would be ineligible for the new coverage and that non-group, individual premiums might increase 15 to 20 percent. It would then be up to each state to decide whether or not to adopt the individual mandate.

3. If the court decides that the Medicaid expansion is constitutional, it will take effect in 2014 — unless Congress acts to postpone, repeal, or not fund it. But if the expansion is left intact, with almost a quarter of all Americans covered by Medicaid, the program would grow to include a portion of the middle class.

4. If Medicaid expansion is overruled, coverage will remain at current, varying state levels, and an estimated 16 million low-income individuals will not be able to take advantage of the new Medicaid coverage that would have begun in 2014.

5. Politically, if the new law is judged constitutional, Democrats will celebrate the judicial affirmation of the spirit and substance of the historic reform, illustrating President Obama's leadership. Republicans would fan the existing flames of unpopularity among the majority of Americans, citing federal government overreach, rallying around an election call for repeal as they did in 2010. If any part is unconstitutional, the bases of both parties will be emboldened to make health reform the defining issue, after the economy, in the elections in November.

This one is worth following. It will be a game-changer. And not just for the politicians and pundits in Washington. It's a game-changer for you, too.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, the chairman of Hope Through Healing Hands and Tennessee SCORE, professor of surgery, and author of six books. Learn more about his work at BillFrist.com.

by Ifeoma Ozodiegwu
East Tennessee State University: College of Public Health
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo

Over the past two weeks, I have continued to work on the research paper on the status of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) supply strategies in the African Region as reported by the Parties to the Convention. My plans to have the first event of the employee community service program in March have been stalled. We also had an unfortunate incident in Brazzaville on the 5th of March. A fire started at a military arms depot and set off a series of explosions killing more than 150 people and leaving thousands displaced. This sad event was felt at the office as many workers lost their homes. As a result, things were a bit slow at the office this week.   The event has been postponed to April to allow time for things to settle back down.

However, I have been able to make contact with two Units- Human Resource for Health; and Planning, budgeting, monitoring and evaluation.  The Human Resource for Health Unit is engaged in ensuring an available, competent, responsive and productive health workforce in the African region to ensure improved health outcomes. The latter unit enables the effective and the efficient implementation of the WHO managerial framework through the development of regional policies, systems and tools.

The mission of these two units was explained to me and I was given materials to read in order to have an understanding of their work. I am hoping to do a rotation in those units soon.  

The Week

Americans hear a lot about decline. Declines in manufacturing, fading productivity, plummeting home values, spiraling deficits, and sadly, dwindling faith in the American dream.

Let me tell you where I see the worst decline — but also our nation's best hope.

One in five kids in America lives in poverty. That's 20 percent of America's future left behind. Left to drop out of high school, suffer through shorter lives, commit crimes, have a child in their teens — and then perpetuate this cycle with their own children.

It doesn't have to be like this. Imagine an America with 20 percent fewer high school dropouts, 20 percent fewer teen pregnancies, and a 20 percent reduction in chronic health problems like diabetes and hypertension. Picture an America with a workforce that is 20 percent more productive and packed with 20 percent more qualified job applicants. Dream of an America with 20 percent more middle-class citizens. We would be a country poised to soar.

So how do we get there?

The fastest route out of poverty lies with education. With better education, kids live longer, earn more, wait longer to have a child, and are less likely to commit a crime. More importantly, these benefits pass on to their children, snapping the cruel cycle of poverty.

Poverty, especially during formative early years, can be an enormous hurdle for a child's development. At U.S. schools where less than 10 percent of the student body is impoverished, reading scores rank first in the world. Yet these same scores for U.S. schools where 75 percent or more of the student body is impoverished rank 45th.

In a country with a failing K-12 school system, is it really possible to improve education for impoverished children? Yes, and here are three ways: Providing a boost for kids, lending a hand to parents, and pulling together crumbling neighborhoods.

First, we must start young, much younger than you might think. Most poor children are already behind on their first day of school. At age 4, poor children are 18 months behind developmentally, and without access to early education, kids are 25 percent more likely to drop out of high school.

Communities must target vigorous pre-K education and daycare programs for the one in five kids whose parents simply can't afford them. Soft skills such as sharing, negotiation, reason, and concentration are instilled between finger-painting and building with blocks. The critical ingredient of high expectations is introduced. These are not luxury goods. They are essential in making communities more prosperous. When states think about job training, they should begin with pre-K education.

Second, a renewed focus on parents can be the lever to pry kids from a life of poverty. For example, Nashville's Martha O'Bryan Center provides the education and resources needed for parents to raise healthy families. Parents learn positive parenting skills, tools for making their children better learners, and smart exercise and nutrition strategies to keep kids healthy. These lessons, as simple as immunization and reading to kids at night, can also delve into more substantive issues like child maturation and brain development.

Parents learn that their role is not just to put food on the table, but to act as their child's first teacher, role model, and advocate.

In addition, an educated parent is more likely to elevate a child from poverty. A parent who earns a GED provides for his or her family better, giving kids that extra boost that can make all the difference. Learning soft skills and simple trades, such as basic culinary training, can help a parent get that first job, propelling the family to a brighter future.

Third, communities play a role. Last year, Nashville began an innovative strategy providing "cradle-to-career" services to 6,000 children in one of the city's most challenging neighborhoods. The Nashville Promise Neighborhood, modeled after the successful Harlem Children's Zone, is a public-private partnership uniting government agencies, nonprofits, schools, churches, and neighbors to provide continuous, coordinated health and education support.

Instead of uncoordinated institutions attacking different problems in piecemeal fashion, the most pressing needs are attacked with proven solutions. A dependable support network is built for all residents, including early education, expanded access to learning technologies, and family support including day care. Make no mistake, this is an ambitious program and requires total buy-in, but by pulling together, entire communities can pull themselves up.

To get America back on track, we must help those who have fallen behind. Only with our nation's full strength and commitment can we tackle the trends that drag us down.

How do you think America can fix its child poverty problem? Tell us on Twitter using the hashtag #ChildPoverty.

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