Public health expert comes full circle

(Edmonton) In a way, Julio Frenk fulfilled his family’s destiny by accepting an honorary degree from the University of Alberta.

Frenk, the dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health and former health minister of Mexico, has no official ties to the community—except his imagination of what might have been.

His paternal grandfather, Ernst Frenk, was a physician in Hamburg, Germany, before deciding to leave behind the hostile prejudice directed at the Jewish community. After learning about career opportunities in Western Canada, he circled Alberta as his family’s new home. But then his wife, a student of the Spanish language, met a Mexican émigré who persuaded the couple to move further south. They never looked back.

“I have often fantasized who would be occupying my place in the world if my grandparents had pursued their original plans of moving to Alberta,” said Frenk while accepting an honorary doctor of science degree June 8. “By becoming now a member of the academic community of Alberta, I feel like a part of my family’s destiny has finally been fulfilled.”

That destiny has certainly led to great things for Frenk, who established himself as a giant in global health. Born in Mexico City, he studied medicine at the National University of Mexico before moving on to the University of Michigan for three advanced degrees, including master of public health.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Frenk served as founding director-general of the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico, before holding senior leadership roles with the Mexican Health Foundation and the Center for Health and the Economy.

In 1998, Frenk served as executive director of evidence and information policy at the World Health Organization, its first-ever unit devoted to developing a scientific foundation for health policy to achieve better outcomes. His work helped lead a change to place health more firmly at the centre of the development agenda.

From 2000 to 2006, Frenk served as Mexico’s health minister, undertaking an ambitious agenda of health reform, in particular addressing social inequality. His reforms led to the creation of universal health insurance—opening access to care for tens of millions of previously uninsured Mexicans.

He became dean at Harvard in 2009 and co-chaired the global Commission on the Education of Health Professionals in the 21st Century, which published a landmark report in The Lancet in 2010.

Frenk told the graduating class in medicine and dentistry that the world experienced the most intense health transformation in human history in the 20th century, with life expectancy more than doubling from the global average of 30 years in 1900 to 71 years today.

But despite these major transformations, medical education did not keep pace with changing health conditions, resulting in a mismatch of competencies to patient and population needs, poor teamwork, narrow technical focus without broader contextual understanding, emphasis on hospital orientation at the expense of primary care, poor leadership, and so on.

“We are now in need of a third generation of reforms,” Frenk said. Those reforms need to focus on enhancing the performance of health systems and adapting core professional competencies to specific needs, while drawing on global knowledge.

Health education needs to help students acquire knowledge and skills to produce experts, socialize students around values to create professionals, and develop leadership attributes to create “enlightened agents of change,” he said.

For graduands to fulfil their inner calling, they will undergo numerous challenges that test their character, abilities and moral stature. “In your case, this transition has turned out to be particularly complex because you are entering a professional world in flux, with new challenges, in the midst of a global crisis.”

Fortunately, he said, the University of Alberta has given graduands the elements to meet the demands of their inner calling and answer these challenges through the “seeds of ideas and ideals your teachers planted in your minds and in your souls.”

“If you make good use of these ideas, you will become knowledgeable and skilful physicians and dentists. If you make good use of these ideals, you will also become successful professionals. If you use both of them to become leaders, you will turn into enlightened agents of change, thus achieving truly transformative learning.”

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