On Friday, January 28, 2011, the 35th Surgeon General of the US Navy, Dr. Don Arthur, discussed medical diplomacy at IWP. He was introduced by an IWP friend and supporter RADM Dave Rogers. Admiral Rogers described Dr. Arthur’s many professional and academic achievements.
Dr. Arthur began his discussion with a description of his experiences as a medical officer in the US Navy. In that role he learned that medicine, diplomacy, and the military can coexist.
Dr. Arthur explained that a hospital ship’s humanitarian services can have a real impact in a region, and can bring the the local population to realize that Americans are altruistic, not just proud and selfish.
He also described some of the lessons he had learned about the way in which medical diplomacy should be conducted. Dr. Arthur discussed the importance of speaking with the local medicine man or tribal leader and gaining a rapport, as opposed to immediately providing the care that medical practitioners are trained to provide. Continuing communication and presence among the people is important because it solidifies the reputation of the American team as friendly and dependable.
It is also valuable to show the locals medical practices that they can sustain themselves after the US medical team leaves the area. Otherwise, the medical efforts are brief and unsustainable. Dr. Arthur described an experience of returning to a village after several months and finding the antibiotics his team had provided strung in necklaces. These necklaces were the result of a misunderstanding between the doctors and the locals – a misunderstanding that was remedied after increased communication.
If conducted properly, medical diplomacy can be a powerful tool. In fact, Admiral Mike Mullen, USN, who currently serves as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed that a hospital ship was the most effective ship in the Navy.
Questions included inquiries about how the US can justify spending money on hospital ships when we are in an economic crisis, how US medical teams in Iraq and Afghanistan can be used more effectively for public diplomacy purposes, and whether we can learn anything from Cuba’s or China’s medical diplomacy efforts.