I recently attended a presentation on “One Health Leadership in a Global Setting” sponsored by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.  What is “One Health”? you may wonder.  From what I can gather, it’s a way of thinking which takes a holistic approach to human, animal and environmental health.  It also involves working collaboratively on complex global (and local) problems across geographies, disciplines (e.g. medicine, nursing, public health, veterinary medicine, ecology), and sectors (public/private/academia). 

As some of the presenters noted, there’s nothing new about this (they called it the “systems approach” when I was in grad school and apparently Florence Nightingale was an early proponent) but it seems to currently have new life in the health sciences.  It all makes sense but sometimes the obvious is elusive.

The keynote speaker was Lertrak Srikitjakarn, dean of the vet school at Chiang Mai University, Thailand (whose tagline is “University of Excellence Where Nature Nurtures Beautiful Intelligence” – this tells you something right there).   Professor Srikitjakarn and his partners in academia and in rural villages tackle various interrelated animal health and human problems (such as avian flu and buffalo disease). 

What was particularly interesting to me was the cultural backdrop.  In Southeast Asia, Buddhism and other eastern religions exert a major influence.  In Buddhist thought, he explained, there is no “I”, nothing permanently exists, and there is recognition of the interdependence and respect between people, animals and things.  It was also pointed out that in other geographies and cultures (including among Native Americans), not just Southeast Asia, there is a closer connection, both literally and philosophically, between people, animals and the natural environment.  Thus, “one health” seems to be a more natural way of thinking in many non-westernized societies. 

The panelists, several University of Minnesota professors (from the schools of Public Health, Medicine, Nursing and Veterinary Medicine) acknowledged that within large universities (and within our culture in general), the default approach is to address problems within “silos”.  Yet these people are working hard and sincerely to solve complex global health issues in more collaborative ways.  Of course, to institutionalize less ego-driven, more integrative (and ultimately more effective) approaches is a long-term challenge.

The presentations were really quite moving, punctuated by humor and feelings of shared goodwill.  One of my favorite moments was when Dr. William Stauffer talked about taking a group of U.S. physicians to Tanzania to help deal with the avian flu outbreak and the locals peppering them with questions their narrow training didn’t prepare them for such as, “What are you going to do about the chickens?” 

There was lots of talk of combining head and heart, with the emphasis on heart.  The speakers emphasized that we are all in this important and complex work together, that “we are all brothers” (and presumably sisters), as well as the importance of listening (that’s why we have two ears and one mouth, you know) and humility (the keynote speaker noted with a smile that he was a “nobody” with “no money”).  Although the focus was on the sciences, it all felt very human and exciting.