Maybe we could benefit from a lesson from another country. As reported in the Bulletin of the WHO, Thailand seems to have found a way to get ordinary citizens and members of civil society involved in a civil, organized health care discussion.
For Dr Suwit Wibulpolprasert, chairman of the committee organizing Thailand’s first National Health Assembly (NHA), which took place from 11 to13 December 2008 in Bangkok, opening up the debate on public health is an essential part of developing effective national policy. 'In the past, health policy has tended to be drawn up by politicians and officials,' Wibulpolprasert says. 'But the National Health Assembly is a forum for the public to pool views and initiate health agendas that truly address people’s needs.'
More than 1500 people attended the conference, the first of its kind to take place since the passing into law of the National Health Act of 2007, which also brought the NHA into existence.
A broad cross-section of Thai society was represented, including 178 delegations from government agencies and provincial authorities, the private sector and civil society. In addition, groups including stateless people living near the Myanmar border gave presentations at technical briefings for participants. Dr Kumanan Rasanathan, from WHO’s Department of Ethics, Equity, Trade and Human Rights, described the meeting as 'a very interesting exercise in participatory governance'.
The 12 topics that were up for discussion were distilled from more than 68, including such familiar ones as universal access to medicines and equal access to basic public health services. Also addressed were matters as diverse as agriculture and food prices in the current economic crisis and safe media access for youth and family – an agenda that included a proposal for addressing problems of children addicted to online games and television.
'The broad slate of topics reflects the intention to encourage input from everyone,' says Rasanathan, 'and improve public participation as well as intersectoral collaboration.' In other words, the assembly’s organizers actively encouraged the participation of stakeholders from outside the field of public health – from education, agriculture and industry, to name but a few.
'The Thais have adapted much of the machinery of the World Health Assembly [WHO’s supreme decision-making body] for their own context,' says Rasanathan, who noted that each of the 178 constituent groups had equal speaking rights. Briefing papers were produced and resolutions were passed on each of the agendas. As with WHA resolutions, these resolutions are not binding.
According to Dr Amphon Jindawatthana, secretary-general of the National Health Commission Office, once the resolutions have been adopted they are considered by the National Health Commission, which reworks them for ministerial review and possible inclusion in national policy.
Given the hurdles that still need to be cleared once a resolution is passed at the Assembly, one might be forgiven for dismissing the body as something of a talking shop.
This is a charge that Wibulpolprasert firmly denies. He is convinced that NHA-formulated resolutions will certainly lead to policy, and policy that is closer to the needs of Thailand’s 63 million people.
The 2009 Assembly will be held in December. Details can be found here.
I wonder if we would be having a more productive health care debate in the US if the way had been prepared by a US National Health Assembly? Maybe if the multi-million dollar a year leaders of health care organizations had to listen to the concerns of ordinary people, and some practicing health care professionals, a little common sense might penetrate into the bubble created by their superclass membership.