“It gives us a way of looking at big-picture stuff.”
The question was about the benefits in thinking of health as a human right, and those words were the answer of Dr. Evan Lyon, during a guest lecture he gave recently to Northwestern University students. Lyon’s day job is spent as a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. But for the past 15-plus years, he has gone and above and beyond that title, ever-working to bring, maintain, and constantly improve the health care and health conditions in Haiti.
Lyon first started working in the impoverished country in the mid-nineties, after he graduated from college, out of what he called during a pre-lecture interview, “a desire to do advocacy and social justice-type work.”
“I thought I would spend a couple of weeks there,” Lyon said. “It turned out to be a year.”
Now, as a doctor for Partners in Health — a nonprofit organization that works to improve health care both domestically and abroad — Lyon devotes a large majority of his medical knowledge to addressing the health issues in Haiti. The roots of those issues, Lyon said, go in many different, yet interconnected, directions.
During the aforementioned lecture to Professor Michael Diamond’s biomedical engineering class, Lyon urged the students to think beyond the obvious medical roots of health care — such as microbes, genetics, and age — and to the social aspects — such as poverty, inequality, gender, access, and the environment.
“People like me work on the assumption that health is a right, not a commodity,” Lyon said. “It needs to be an accessible, justly distributed basic right.”
One of the problems, Lyon said, is the lack of medical education in Haiti. Hence his and Partners in Health’s work to build a new teaching hospital. After the devastating earthquake in 2010, the country’s old teaching hospital was all but destroyed, so the government asked the organization to build a new one. Now, thanks to donations large and small, from ordinary people and large organizations, the hospital is set to open later this month. It will provide basic services and will soon have a cardiology department, an oncology department, and an obstetrics department, which Lyon said was greatly needed.
“A lot of health issues in the world are hard to approach, but allowing for a safe pregnancy and delivery? We know how to do that,” Lyon said.
That sentiment, Lyon added, should be applied to many more health conditions. Noting how Haiti has high numbers of “regular things” such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke, Lyon stressed that medicine would do a great service by focusing on what is understood.
“We need more programs that deliver on what we know how to do, rather than focusing on the next new vaccine or wonder drug,” he said. “One of the biggest problems we have to solve is how to deliver on what already works.”
Although he said that Haiti has a long way to go in terms of meeting the basic health needs of its citizens, he also said that the work he is doing with Partners in Health is the kind that drew him to being a physician in the first place.
“There are a lot of upsides to doing this kind of work as compared to being a well-paid doctor in the suburbs,” he said. “I can be hands-on, can see the change that’s been coming from building clinics, from supporting the work. There is quick feedback, and you can accomplish a lot. It’s really satisfying work.”