The United States should create a service corps of doctors, nurses and medical technicians to deploy to humanitarian disasters like the one that struck Haiti last month.
Members of this corps would also be available to countries where violence, neglect and poverty are breeding extremism. History has shown that there is a significant correlation between adequate health care and a country’s stability and security. It is no coincidence that terrorism often thrives in places that lack basic services like education, clean water and rudimentary medical care.
The program would be modeled on the Peace Corps, with the added incentives of loan forgiveness and scholarships in exchange for a committed period of service. Precedents for this abound: the Department of Health and Human Services already forgives loans for doctors who work for at least two years in areas of the United States with inadequate medical care. The new medical corps would operate along the same lines, by sending doctors, nurses and ancillary staff to countries that are judged to be most in need of improved health care. Along with setting up clinics and upgrading hospitals, these professionals would help train locals.
The impact that a program like this could have in response to the Haitian earthquake is obvious. Less obvious, though, is the effect it could have in places that are fragile, but not in the midst of immediate disasters.
In military terminology, improved health care should be seen as a force multiplier. Populations with adequate medical treatment are more prosperous, live longer and have lower birth rates. Healthier societies are better equipped to combat poverty, to provide clean water, education and safe housing, to uphold good governance and social equity.
All these factors, in turn, help immunize populations against the virus of desperation that too often puts a gun or bomb in someone’s hands. A visible commitment by the United States to the health needs of the poor and vulnerable also can’t help but improve the opinion such populations have of Americans.
An international medical corps is not a panacea. But our generals in Iraq and Afghanistan have long recognized that providing basic services to populations there is central to the success of their mission. Perhaps, though, if we bring American medical treatment to other potential trouble spots, we may not need to call in the generals.
Vanessa Bradford Kerry, a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.