Of Baby Formula, Health Care, and the Ever-Flattening World

by JHI Staff on May 20, 2013

A story broke recently about a run on baby formula in stores in Europe. The trigger for this unprecedented shortage, it turns out, was a drought in Australia and New Zealand—even though neither country has much to do with any part of the European baby-formula supply chain. But Australia happens to be a major supplier of milk for popular brands of baby formula imported by China, and the drought led to a cut-back in shipments into China.

China has plenty of local brands of baby formula, but many Chinese parents won’t use them, especially after a contaminated batch in 2008 left 300,000 infants ill, six of them fatally. So high is the preference of many Chinese parents for the foreign brands that they have gone online and enlisted overseas friends to ship in formula on their own, presumably at much higher cost, and in such large volumes that supplies have become scarce in several countries. Parents in these countries have in turn started stockpiling formula, exacerbating the shortage, and leading to higher prices. (Hong Kong was hit with shortages, too.)

The moral most people will take from this story—and the one that the Associated Press played up in its reporting—is that in our increasingly flat, wired, interlinked world, a problem in one region can have domino-like ramifications felt in other regions. True enough. Some might further be reminded that China’s vast economy, which is fast producing an enormous middle class with newly found purchasing power (and usually only one child to spend it on), as well as better access to information, can now create reverberations with every step.

But what came to my mind in reading this story is that in more and more countries, when people are concerned about their health, or the health of their loved ones, they can become acutely aware of the shortcomings of local health resources. That applies not only to baby formula in China, but also in many regions around the world to cardiac care, or cancer treatment, or even primary care.

Baby formula is easily shipped, at least for those who can afford it, and when supplies hold out. Most other forms of health care, unfortunately, are a great deal less portable. Certainly, people can travel for care they don’t think they can get locally, and many do— Johns Hopkins serves hundreds of patients from around the world and the U.S. every day, and we’re honored that they entrust their care to us, and doing everything we can to ease the challenges of getting treatment far from home.

But we’re also acutely aware that getting treatment can be challenging enough when the care is next door, and having to travel for it only adds to the burden. No matter how big a population is, nor how affluent it becomes, there is no perfect substitute for local care. Calling it “medical tourism” puts a cheery face on it, but people traveling for treatment are not tourists—they’re patients. What they really need (and deserve) is great local care that they can trust.

The world will get flatter and flatter, and more and more wired. And yes, health care will get more and more wired, too. But for much of the world, real progress in health care will arrive in a form that’s ever closer to home.

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Of Baby Formula, Health Care, and the Ever-Flattening World | jhublogs
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