Physicians urged to extend their role on Root Causes of Ill Health

(18.10.2011) Physicians should extend their role beyond simply repairing people's poor health and involve themselves more with the root causes of premature ill health, the World Medical Association said today.

In advance of this week's World Summit on Social Determinants in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the WMA has put forward a far reaching statement urging national medical associations to put more pressure on governments to take steps to try to minimise these root causes of premature ill health.

Dr. Jose Gomes do Amaral, President of the WMA, who is leading a nine-strong WMA delegation at the summit, said: ‘We believe physicians should pay greater attention to what are known as the social determinants of health. These are the causes of the causes of ill health - the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. While health care will attempt to repair the damage caused by premature ill health, it is these social, cultural, environmental and economic factors that are the major causes of illness and health inequalities. Physicians can no longer sit back and watch these inequalities grow. They must become more interventionist.'

The WMA statement said that historically the primary role of doctors and other health care professionals had been to treat the sick. To a lesser extent they had dealt with individual causes of disease, such as smoking, obesity, and alcohol.

‘In many societies, unhealthy behaviour follows the social gradient: the lower people are in the socioeconomic hierarchy, the more they smoke, the worse their diet, and the less physical activity they engage in.'

Dr. Mukesh Haikerwal, chair of the WMA, said: ‘There is a growing movement, globally, that is now seeking to address gross inequalities in health and length of life through action on the social determinants of health. We believe the medical profession can be major advocates for action on those social conditions that have important effects on health. The WMA can help doctors put pressure on national governments to take the appropriate steps to try to minimise these root causes of premature ill health.'

He said the WMA should also help to gather data of examples that were working, and help to engage doctors and other health professionals in trying new and innovative solutions.

Sir Michael Marmot, chair of the WMA's socio medical affairs committee, will give a keynote speech at this week's summit.