With Medical Science So Advanced, Why is Social Benefit So Low?

He was born in Buffalo in 1910 and has practiced medicine in China for fifty two years. He is Dr. George Hatem, but to millions of Chinese who view him as a hero of their Revolution, he is known as Ma Heide.
A lot of history has transpired since Dr. Hatem graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed his medical degree in Switzerland. He was both witness and participant in that seismic convulsion known as the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the victory of the Red Army over the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. The story of this doctor would make a memorable movie, which many friends hope his wife, a film-maker, will soon make.

I first came across his name when Parade magazine published a prominent article on him in the mid-Seventies during the occasion of his first of several return visits to his native country. He came to visit his family and to catch up on medical developments. In turn, medical societies and medical schools wanted to catch up on just how he and his Chinese colleagues planned and implemented the virtual eradication of syphilis right after the Revolution. At that time, prostitution and syphilis were epidemic in China’s teeming cities.

Hatem admits to a bit of “shock” over “how, with the U.S. level of medical science and skill so high, its level of social benefit could still be so low. While those able to pay could get probably the world’s best treatment, further down medical protection was uneven, inadequate or in some cases unavailable, despite the immense sum spent on it…even in China’s poverty, she has been able to eradicate venereal disease, which the U.S. still hasn’t, even with so many more doctors, so much more knowledge and research, and treatment which – for VD at any rate — is free,” he said.

The U.S. has much more money; but China has many more public health workers (called barefoot doctors), he observed, adding that “preventive medicine means, first and foremost, its effective distribution.” Still, it was not until about 1930 that the first editorial criticizing the adverse health consequences of smoking was published in the Peoples Daily newspaper Chinese still smoke a great deal. Many with colds also expectorate on streets and sidewalks, but recent enforcement of the law against this unhealthy practice has reduced some of this surface slipperiness to pedestrians.

There is little doubt, though, that American physicians who have surveyed China’ public health achievement for over one billion people, have come away impressed. The celebrated fly eradication campaign was a publicity leader for a much broader campaign of public hygiene.

Still, Hatem is worried about Chinese physicians who travel abroad and are overwhelmed by the advanced medical technology and luxurious hospital rooms. “If you’ve learned all that the best electron microscope can tell you about the spirochete, but aren’t able to wipe out syphilis, your scientific level leaves much to be desired. We admit, of course, that our medicine 411 has a great deal to learn. However, it must develop along lines suitable to China. Learning doesn’t mean just copying.”

So, at the age of 75, Dr. Hatem is working to establish an animal husbandry and forestry school in remote, north west China, a vast Children’s Science Park in Beijing, and most prominently, enlisting help in China and abroad for a program to eradicate leprosy in China by the year 2000.

Completing a three month visit here this summer, Hatem met with foundations, media people (among whom he counts many friends) and celebrities like Ann Landers who contributed $5000 to the anti-Leprosy campaign. He hopes the campaign will be a model for other Third World countries with higher leprosy rates which he attributes “to the social disease of poverty.”

For one who has been through war and revolution, the Red Guard years and the turmoils of a society beset with stress, pressure and poverty, Dr. Hatem has a remarkably persistent penchant for building bridges.

A story he tells illustrates his personality trait in this regard: “For many years, I listened daily to the Voice of America. When John Foster Dulles and his like made it an instrument of hate-mongering against China, some of he things it poured out were both sour and comic. Recently, when I myself visited the Voice of America in Washington, I recalled some of the laughs they gave us. By then its staff could laugh with me, and they did.”

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