Health Is a Human Right: Dr. Farmer’s Philosophy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you think health is a human right? Should everyone have access to health care, regardless of their ability to pay?

According to Paul Farmer, a doctor and anthropologist who devoted his life to making medical care accessible to all, health is a fundamental human right. Farmer went to great lengths to realize this philosophy in practice.

Read more to learn about Paul Farmer and his medical philosophy: health is a human right.

Paul Farmer’s Medical Philosophy: Health Is a Human Right

Paul Farmer has worked for decades to provide health care to patients in Haiti and around the world. He believed that health is a human right and that medical care should be available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. He felt deep discontent with how many diseases around the world would be preventable if people were only given the appropriate treatment.

To realize his philosophy in practice, Paul Farmer founded a hospital to serve the need for affordable medical care in rural Haiti. Though there were other hospitals and clinics in the area, many required patients to pay more than they could afford for treatment, including for the medical equipment used to treat them, like gloves. And many local hospitals and clinics lacked basic sanitation. In contrast, though the staff at Paul Farmer’s hospital sometimes made mistakes or botched lab testing, they treated nearly everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. 

Farmer often slept no more than 4 hours a night because he was thinking about patients who needed treatment but weren’t getting it. More broadly, he felt ambivalent about charging for his medical care knowing that many couldn’t afford it. For him, it spoke to a greater need to improve the distribution of medicine and wealth.

Farmer also thought that people in the US, particularly “white liberals,” needed to recognize that big change couldn’t happen without some sacrifice on their part. For example, he hoped that if someone learned about a disease afflicting the poor, they’d give money to help treat it rather than assuming it’d resolve itself.

Sustainable Approach to Medicine?

Farmer believed that poor patients should receive the treatment they need to thrive, even if it requires more effort from health care professionals. This could include house visits or giving patients goods or money for food and services.

But he worried that most doctors weren’t willing to dedicate themselves to this kind of immersive medicine. They might work for a few years in a foreign country, but return to their homeland later to work in hospitals with better pay and more cushy living.

Instead, Farmer wanted to inspire young doctors to adopt his medical philosophy, that health is a human right, and dedicate themselves to treating the world’s poor and vulnerable for life.

Health Is a Human Right: Dr. Farmer’s Philosophy

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Tracy Kidder's "Mountains Beyond Mountains" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Mountains Beyond Mountains summary:

  • How Dr. Paul Farmer came to operate a hospital in Haiti
  • What the connection is between sorcery and tuberculosis
  • How Dr. Farmer's organization is a model for treating patients in poor countries

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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