Promoting Health Through Policy

TEDMED celebrates the multidisciplinary approaches our Speakers and Innovators take towards shaping a healthier world. This year, we will hear from Speakers who are creating healthier societies on a government-wide scale. By prioritizing health policy, these individuals are taking proactive, systemic approaches to mitigate health risks in communities around the world.

When physician Agnes Binagwaho moved back to her native country of Rwanda in the aftermath of the devastating genocide, the country’s health care needs far outmatched its resources. Agnes knew she wanted to do something to help her country rebuild and become stronger. Agnes worked her way up to becoming Rwanda’s Minister of Health and led the effort of rebuilding Rwanda’s health care system from scratch. She implemented hospital infrastructure founded on communication, technology, and quality data and she instituted a comprehensive health information management system that helped fill in the gap left by the country’s lack of health care personnel. With this technology, Rwandans in the most remote parts of the country are now able to receive advice from health professionals and provide timely information regarding their community’s epidemiological status. As a result of Agnes’s leadership, Rwanda has had immense success in vaccination programs, touting 93% coverage for nine childhood vaccines, declines in maternal and child mortality rates by 60% and 70% respectively, and premature death rates for patients with AIDS and TB decreasing by 78%.

Like Agnes, former Senate Majority Leader and transplant surgeon Bill Frist understands that a healthy society can lead to a stable society. In the late 1990s, Bill and a team of physicians began making stealth medical mission trips to Lui, a remote region in southern Sudan. When they first arrived, they performed procedures in a bombed out schoolhouse. Slowly, year after year, Lui transformed from an area with no infrastructure and little commerce to home of one of the best-equipped hospitals in the area and a place where all people affected by the conflict could receive medical intervention. Recognizing that medical care was a foundation on which to build peace and trust, Bill promoted health interventions as a valuable form of diplomacy during his time as a legislator. After being called upon by President George W. Bush, Bill helped lay the foundation for the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which was passed in 2003 with strong bipartisan support. The PEPFAR initiative has continued throughout presidential administrations, saving 11.5 million lives and increasing US approval ratings within the countries it operates.

Bill Frist in Haiti.

While Agnes and Bill have made great strides promoting health through policy at the national and global levels, changes at the local level are often critical in addressing individual health needs. In New York City, State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal is advocating for gender equity by fostering discussion and promoting policies around women’s health. One of the issues that Linda is tackling is the tampon tax. The average woman in America will use 300 tampons and pads each year, resulting in significant personal expenditures over a lifetime—a monetary cost that, in many states, is compounded by the taxes placed on these products. Linda has successfully repealed taxes on tampons in New York, giving the feminine care product—that was once taxed as a luxury good—the same exemptions as bandages and condoms.

Despite her achievement in removing the tax on tampons in New York, Linda recognized that many women and girls have a difficult time accessing feminine hygiene products in the first place. Today, Linda advocates for free tampons and sanitary napkins in low-income school districts, prisons, and homeless shelters. Often, only inmates who can afford the hygiene products receive them, and others must use rags or toilet paper to create makeshift tampons and pads, leaving them vulnerable to infection. In low-income schools, a young woman often has to wait in line at the nurse’s office to receive a tampon or pad, missing valuable time in the classroom. Linda is advocating for free bathroom dispensers to allow women to quickly acquire what they need so they won’t miss out on their educational experiences. Furthermore, Linda’s efforts are helping to ensure periods are understood as a healthy, normal occurrence, not a sign of sickness.

Whether they are addressing issues at the systemic or individual level—or working proactively to prevent them—smart policies have the power to improve and shape our health care. At TEDMED this year, we’re excited to hear more from these changemakers about their work improving the health of society through health policy.