This article was originally published in the March 2006 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
A Practical Guide to Global Health Service By Edward J. O'Neil, Jr.
Published by the American Medical Association
402 pages; $39.95
Awakening Hippocrates examines in depth the causes of global health disparities, states the need for increased volunteerism by health providers, and tells the inspiring stories of seven physicians who have dedicated their lives to serving those in poverty-stricken areas around the world, including Albert Schweitzer, Tom Dooley, Paul Farmer, and Jim Kim. Dr. Edward J. O'Neil, Jr. (KNFP 14) is confronting the injustice that allows quality health care to be accessible only to those who can afford it. His remedy: increase volunteerism within the medical profession to deliver health care services where they are needed most as a means to get a far larger slice of the U.S. medical profession engaged directly and politically.
Ed knows from personal experience that "health providers who engage in health service in other countries recognize the power for change from having worked on the ground in these countries." In 1987, Ed spent one month as a fourth-year medical student working in a hospital in Tanzania. There, he was exposed to the harsh realities faced by the poor. Often, he saw them succumb to easily treated illnesses that had become serious from going untreated because of no available health care. The experience was life-changing. Ed writes, "I learned valuable lessons about working with the poor, coming to see them as people first and not as objects of my benevolence or charity. I began to see their problems as our problems. The experience transformed me and redirected my life path."
After completing his residency and spending a few years working as an emergency physician to pay back medical school loans, Ed returned to Africa to run a medical ward in Nazareth Hospital on the outskirts of Nairobi. Under the tutelage of the hospital director, Father/Dr. Bill Fryda, he began to understand the larger forces at play that perpetuated poverty for so many, and how the larger global structures designed to help people were not working. Most relief efforts, for example, come in the form of donations from charitable organizations. "Charity," said Ed in a phone interview with KFLA, "allows for doing something that makes the giver feel good, but doesn't change why people are poor." He juxtaposes charitable efforts with the more effective approach of working for social justice. "To arrive at justice, we are required to take a far more arduous journey," he explains.
"We need to understand the needs and desires of the poor, as well as the forces that constrain their hopes or very existence." While in Kenya, Ed learned he had been awarded his Kellogg Fellowship. The timing of the Fellowship meshed with his desire to better understand the complex issues of poverty and inequities in accessible quality health care. The Fellowship helped Ed determine how to combine his professional skills with his passion for addressing global health disparities. As a result, in 1998, he founded a non-governmental organization, Omni Med, to engage more health care providers to serve in developing countries.
"We need more people involved in this struggle," he implores. "To me, it's an ethical affront that life expectancy is 30 years less in sub-Saharan Africa than in the U.S. Addressing the enormous gaps in accessible, quality health care is the essential calling of the medical profession." Ed admits, "With Omni Med's design, I borrowed heavily from the Kellogg Fellowship program by replicating the small group activities it does so well. The emphasis in an Omni Med program is on immersion in the local culture and we often have the physicians stay with local families. In this way, everyone comes back feeling they experienced the country and culture, and understands the health programs and challenges of life in that developing country."
Ed points out the enormous support he has received both from Fellows and from the Kellogg Foundation. Omni Med's board is comprised entirely of Kellogg contacts. And Dr. Jim Kim (KNFP 14), co-founder of Partners In Health, provided guidance in the operations of a health service NGO. (Jim Kim is profiled in a chapter of Awakening Hippocrates). As well, several Fellows have lent expertise and advice in establishing Omni Med programs, in making connections with key personnel abroad, and in reviewing drafts of the books. To date, Omni Med, based in Boston, has sponsored more than 100 trips with volunteer physicians to Belize, Kenya, Thailand, and Guyana. Ultimately, Ed hopes, "What will come from getting more people involved in international health service is that people will become engaged politically and driven to leverage U.S. policy. When we can get a critical mass of people involved, we will make an impact on U.S. and global policies."