Major diseases: A (majorly) big-picture view

We had only a very short time–some 60 minutes–to start learning about major diseases in our class this week. As I told students, they way we see it, this class puts to the test the notion that an excellent manager knows something about the limits of his or her own knowledge, is skilled in drawing on others, and is always working to link and connect ideas and information, test hypotheses, and make the most of others’ experience and expertise in new and effective ways. Our students cannot learn as much about, say, HIV AIDS treatment, the Ugandan political system, or the lives of a given set of patients as our hosts, partners, and domain experts already know. So our job is to learn from them as effectively as possible.

To that end, we started looking at major diseases and health conditions that some of our student teams will encounter. We started with a very big-picture view, asking: what are the major diseases that impose the highest costs? We ended up talking about how one measures the cost of a given cause of death, and got talking about DALYs, or disability-adjusted life years, a standard measure for the cost to society of a given disease or health condition. Students wanted to know more about some of the methodological issues: the WHO site on the Global Burden of Disease is the best place to start. Here you’ll see the source of my graphs (the 2004 update), more data and reports, and links to academic papers that discuss some of the questions we touched on.

The readings we assigned for this class offer a useful starting point for anyone interested in the big picture. For self study, start here:

The World Health Report 2008 critically assesses the way that health care is organized, financed, and delivered in rich and poor countries around the world. The WHO report documents a number of failures and shortcomings that have left the health status of different populations, both within and between countries, dangerously out of balance.

The World Health Atlas is an interactive site that opens a window into the health of people around the world. The data are a few years old, but are nicely presented and worth exploring.

Global Health Opportunities: The Global Health Council worked with expert advisors to highlight four health focus areas: Child Health; Reproductive Health; HIV/AIDS; Infectious Diseases. This site presents the Global Health Opportunities 2008 on Priorities and U.S. Investments, in a very useful section-by-section format.

The online module Global burden of disease: Magnitude and measures is a nicely-produced resource to look through. Click on the icon at the lower right for a guide through the materials. Its learning goals:  Causes of Mortality; How Deaths are defined; Methods to generate health values; Summary Measures of Population Health; Global Burden of Disease Project; the Disability-Adjusted Life Year (DALY) and its criticisms; Mortality and DALYs projected to 2030.

BIO Ventures for Global Health, an organization dedicated to harnessing the resources of the biotechnology industry to create new medicines for neglected diseases of the developing world, produced its BVGH Global Health Primer last year.

Up next: Stay tuned for a post on the other part of our introduction to major diseases.

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