Friday, 4 December 2009.
I’m somewhere over the steppes of Central Asia – on my way back from an international conference in Hong Kong on the theme of emerging issues in public health. Time to sit back and reflect.
It was a good conference – attracting delegates from all over East Asia and beyond. Inevitably, much of the focus was on the ever-increasing burden of chronic disease in this rapidly developing and urbanising region – not just China and India, but Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and even Burma.
The same pattern is repeated again and again. People flock to the cities to find work, the buildings zoom up, the traffic multiplies, the diet westernises and the waistbands expand. Obesity linked to diabetes linked to heart disease and stroke. Not helped by the efforts of the tobacco industry. As a result, the health systems, mostly private sector, creak and buckle. There’s widespread recognition that public health improvement and primary care are vital – but also widespread concern that they are chronically underfunded, patchily organised and poorly linked together.
One key to this is education – linking public health and clinical training -, a recurring theme of the conference and the main thrust of my keynote presentation.
But the real value in my travelling to Hong Kong was undoubtedly in the face-to-face meetings with people who have the power and influence to build up public health and primary care and link them together. There is no substitute for the personal touch in this part of the world – perhaps in any part of the world. Tele-meetings, invaluable though they are for many purposes, simply don’t cut it for forming close working relationships and building camaraderie and trust. Business people know this – to clinch a deal you need to get to know each other.
But, as I fly back across Mongolia and Siberia towards Moscow, St Petersburg and the Baltic, Copenhagen edges into my moving map and gnaws at my conscience. I know that this kind of meeting will have to become a rarity – at least for me. I do not want to be a climate criminal. I do not want to let the planet down. Of course I only fly long-haul to meetings where I feel my being there might make a real difference. But even so, I am determined to be much more selective in future. And I’m sure many others will be making the same resolution.
Yes, it poses awful dilemmas – can I really accept this next invitation to another faraway place? But it’s a nettle the academic world, and the business world, will increasingly have to grasp.
Otherwise Heathrow will need a third runway – and we’ll all need another Earth.