Global is local: Viewing health issues at a community level

June 24, 2016

People often look at global health from a narrow perspective. “Global” is categorized by location – meaning, outside the U.S. and conjures up images of humanitarian responses to poverty and suffering somewhere else in the world.

But that shouldn’t be the approach, says Michael Westerhaus, M.D., an assistant professor in the Medical School and adjunct professor in the School of Public Health.

“The world is becoming more interconnected; therefore dividing issues as ‘local’ or ‘global’ exclusively is an unfair dichotomy. For example, things we talk about somewhere in Northern Uganda, such as building partnerships with community groups or considering social determinants of health in a care plan – that’s something we should talk about wherever we are, including right here in the Twin Cities,” Westerhaus said.

Westerhaus will lead a new course through the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility this fall, which will include half students, half community members. The class will be held entirely in the community and will explore global-local health in Minnesota.

Health Talk spoke with Westerhaus to learn more about how global health relates to local health.

Health Talk (HT): What is global-local health?

Michael Westerhaus (MW): Essentially, it’s looking at health through the lens of social determinants of health. Factors include where you live, your socioeconomic standing, trauma you’ve endured and negative stigmas surrounding his or her race…These all affect health.

HT: Why should people care about global health in a local context?

MW: When we look at health outcomes, about 20 percent of morbidity and mortality in society is influenced by clinical care. The other 80 percent is due to all sorts of other factors. Health professional training focuses almost exclusively on clinical biomedical pieces, which are crucial. But there is far too little teaching on the other vast majority of factors that affect outcomes.

HT: Can global health issues, like Zika or Ebola, indirectly affect us locally?

MW: Yes. In both of those cases, actual disease transmission isn’t a major concern in Minnesota. However, those diseases come with a stigma. With Ebola, the disease isolated many West-African refugees. Several studies have shown that feeling unwelcome in the community has a negative impact on health and wellbeing. Many were also dealing with extreme stress or grief from the loss of family members to the disease.

HT: Why should students study global and local health?

MW: It’s really important to recognize that broader factors have a huge impact on health. It’s not just the physical body, but everything else happening in someone’s life. Our goal is that through this class, students will gain a perspective of real humility and desire to learn as opposed to checking all the boxes. Think globally, even at home, and even in clinical work. But also, open yourself up to exploring other ways to become engaged in the community. Global health and local health are very closely connected.

Learn more about the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility’s Global-local health course.