Too often in academia, we spend significant amounts of time reading about, discussing, and listening to lectures on the foremost challenges impacting our world today. And while this process is educational and informative, there remains one lingering question – So, what are we going to do about it?
More importantly – what can we, as individuals, do about it?
Let me tell you about my path to action.
It was a Thursday morning in the middle of August of this year. I was sitting in my Public Health Policy class. Our guest lecturer, Sir George Alleyne, stood before the class of 250 students and began a large-group discussion on the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) globally. The next hour was different than the majority of our lectures, no PowerPoint slides to be found.
While listening to my classmates describe the variety of factors contributing to the growing burden of NCDs, I heard them share cross-cultural stories. NCDs impact people from all walks of life, regardless of their heritage, sex, or educational level. We discussed how cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of morbidity and mortality globally, how the vast majority of deaths caused by NCDs are preventable, the role of the social determinants of health, and how low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected.
NCDs are “silent killers”. They are often less visually and emotionally relatable compared to a patient with Ebola or a newborn with Zika virus. This may account for the relatively minimal attention that NCDs receive in the media, and more importantly, in global funding for change. To me, this is unacceptable and irresponsible.
After class, a small group of students approached our lecturer to continue the conversation.
I remained in my seat, feeling unsatisfied. I was unwilling to walk-away and go on to my next class, signaling this lecture was like every other – compelling, but not actionable. This was too important of an issue. Fortunately, I was not alone.
It was then that I met my classmate, Minzhi Xing, and after speaking with Sir George, the idea of starting a chapter of the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network in Baltimore was born.
With the support of our classmates, Min and I wanted to organize the student body and local professionals to advocate for the health of marginalized populations whose lives are negatively impacted by NCDs and whose voices were not being heard.
The Right to Advocate and Why it Matters
Just because there are racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and national inequalities among those who are affected by non-communicable disease does not mean we have to accept the status quo.
The reality is that we have strong, validated scientific evidence for how to manage complex diseases that impact millions of global citizens. This includes diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many types of cancer. However, having a solution is not sufficient. We have to find a way to deliver proven treatments in a way that is accessible, affordable, and sustainable for the masses. This is where policy and advocacy become indispensable.
Often, public policy and economic incentives are not aligned with population health in mind. Furthermore, health systems and health care delivery models could benefit from strategic strengthening efforts and innovation. Individuals who are afflicted by this structural inequality are unable to sufficiently advocate for themselves. Consequently, their plight goes unnoticed and is not as commonly incorporated into future systemic changes, thus perpetuating the cycle of social injustice.
In the United States, we have the freedom to voice our opinion, and I believe we should take advantage of this, specifically as it relates to improving health equity both domestically and internationally. Choosing not to participate is a colossal missed opportunity.
In light of the recent presidential election results, we are reminded of the importance of exercising our constitutional right to vote. But that is not all. Frequently, policies underlie programs, procedures, and systems that we are part of. Inaction is a vote for the status quo. Advocacy is a start towards a solution.
Going forward, it is critical for us to come together as unified communities and speak up for what is important to us. There is tremendous strength in numbers, and we must always remember that. If we do not talk with others about the core issues, we risk leaving behind passionate supporters, creative ideas, and valuable considerations.
Uniting to achieve a common goal has been the basis of all major social change over the last century. We must continue to do this, and remain steadfast in pursuit of justice, recognizing there will be challenges along the way.
Our Chapter Focus: Prescription Drug Affordability and Price Transparency
Since that day in mid-August, we have started mobilizing young professionals in the area to join the Baltimore chapter. We are proud to have a diverse group of members across multiple disciplines including public health, medicine, nursing, and business as we continue to grow. For this year, we are excited to focus our efforts on the issue of prescription drug affordability and price transparency in the state of Maryland.
Briefly, the cost of prescription drugs has been rising rapidly. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that prescription drug spending in 2015 was about $457 billion, or approximately 17 cents of every dollar spent on health care in the U.S. Moreover, from 2010 to 2015, retail and specialty drug expenditures have increased 37% and 81%, respectively, making vital drugs unaffordable for many Americans. The United States remains the only high-income country that does not negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.
Voters in Maryland are concerned about the affordability of prescription drugs and there is overwhelming support to address this crisis.
In response, the Baltimore chapter of Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN) has joined the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, one of the largest health care consumer coalitions in the country with over 1,200 faith, labor, business, health, and community organizations, to advocate for price transparency and prescription drug affordability during the Maryland legislative session, which begins January 11, 2017.
(More details about the specific components of the initiative can be found here: http://healthcareforall.com/get-involved/prescription-drug-affordability-initiative/)
We are excited to be directly involved in the advocacy process, representing not only the next generation of leaders as young professionals, but also, every single Maryland resident. We intend for this to be a positive step in making health care accessible and affordable to all Americans.
For me, the next few months represent our collective response and attempt at answering the original lingering question of “What can we do to make a meaningful difference and reduce the burden of NCDs?
We are grateful for this opportunity and hope that it is the beginning of a growing advocacy platform among young professionals in Baltimore.
You can help to make a meaningful difference by supporting our advocacy.
Hussain Lalani is a MD/MPH student at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Duke School of Medicine. He is the Co-leader of the Baltimore chapter of YP-CDN with his classmate, Minzhi Xing.
If you’d like to join the YP-CDN Baltimore Chapter, please contact Hussain or Minzhi at [email protected]