pre-ga reflections (several days late)
I honestly didn’t know what to expect, this being my first Pre-GA (and GA). Truth be told, I had not even heard of the IFMSA until several months ago, when curiosity compelled me to apply to attend the GA. It had seemed like a good idea at the time; much less so when I stepped into my Pre-GA on Universal Health Care – there was so little I knew about global health, and even less about UHC. I had signed up for this 3-day workshop without knowing what I was signing on for, purely because it had piqued my interest. Curiosity and interest; perhaps these were enough.
What ensued was three very interesting days, which opened with a spirited discussion on the definition of ‘Universal Health Care’. Present was an entire spectrum of students – those who could hold forth at length about their passionate views, and those who were new but keen to learn. The sheer heterogeneity of our backgrounds ensured a steep learning curve. And the first thing I learned was how appallingly little I knew, and how (despite my rather multicultural upbringing) myopic I really was.
So what is “Universal Health Care”? Quite literally, a system that provides organized health coverage for all. If health is a fundamental right, then it is equally a public good that should be universally accessible and available to all, without the threat of bankruptcy haunting the sick. Even if it tended towards idealism, it really was a worthwhile cause.
The 3 days passed quickly in a whirlwind of lectures, discussions, films and talks. A much-anticipated field trip to a primary health center as well as Mumbai’s Dharavi slum (one of the largest slums in the world!) also provided some insight into the Indian healthcare system. Beyond the theories and concepts we had discussed in air-conditioned comfort, it showed us the humbling reality of the need for universal health care.
Another interesting session was on comparative health systems, where the participants presented posters on the salient traits of the 20 healthcare systems we represented. We learned of the diversity that existed from country to country, from unbelievably affordable healthcare in Japan and Taiwan, to the astronomical sums presented to patients in the US. Naturally, cultural and demographic factors make them impossible to replicate, but there were interesting points to learn from each other. And while a lot of it was new to us, but some of it was not. Case in point: the pre-reform NHS was one of the most popular and well-known systems in the room.
Beyond exploring the uniqueness and differences, we also learned of the general lack of teaching on our own healthcare systems. It is difficult to say, but perhaps the onus was on us to find out ourselves? I confess that prior to making this poster, what I knew of the NHS was basic, and I am doubly guilty because the NHS reforms earlier this year passed me by in a blur.
Through conversations, what also became evident was the dichotomy in the perception of the role of a medical student. As a medical student, all I needed was competency in clinical skills, medical knowledge, empathy, a good bedside manner… … right? While it could be said that medical school was simply about ‘learning to be doctors’, others believe strongly in integrating global health into the current curricula, and that there was much we could do. And here, in this room, was a myriad of students for whom global health was a passion; a passion large enough to spend wearying hours traveling across the world.
In one of my medical school interviews, I was told that if I ‘really wanted to save so many lives’, I ought to have studied to become a politician. But really, as medical students, we are well placed to advocate for and to create change. As Rudolf Virchow said some 150 years ago, “Physicans are the natural attorneys for the poor”, and the sentiment still holds true today.
So what can we as medical students do to further the cause of UHC? Amongst the plethora of suggestions was advocacy, raising awareness, integrating the subject into our curricula, implementing small projects as a building block for momentum and sustainability.
The Pre-GA was an excellent prelude to the GA proper, ending on a particularly poignant note. After a discussion of what we medical students can do to further the cause of UHC, we scribbled future plans we hoped to pursue after on post-its, and arranged them into the letters “UHC”. From humble pledges of learning more, to ambitious projects of advocating change/ reforming our curricula/ bringing this workshop to countries all over the world, I’d like to think that these 3 days might be the impetus to the start of a whole new movement. Who knows?
The IFMSA is by no means perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, because petty politics and financial fiascos aside, this is what I think the IFMSA truly is about: a platform for the exchange of ideas, networking, collaboration, meeting amazing people, and inspiring a new generation of medical students to create change.