The Second International Medical Congress of Armenia will kick off in Yerevan on June 28 with hundreds of health care professional from around the world expected to converge on Armenia’s capital to discuss the future of Armenia’s healthcare and how Armenian medical professionals in the homeland and Diaspora can contribute to the reform and improvement of this sphere. For the answers to this and other important questions Sona Hamalian sat down with Dr. Ara Babloyan, Armenia’s former Health Minister and the current chairman of the Parliamentary Commission on Health and Human Services.
Sona Hamalian: You have an instrumental role in the realization of the Second International Medical Congress of Armenia. Why is it important to hold the Congress at this juncture in Armenia’s development?
Ara Babloyan: It all comes down to helping secure the continued professional growth of medical practitioners throughout Armenia and Karabakh. This is a hugely important issue given the fact that both republics still lack the resources to have doctors, nurses, and other medical workers study abroad and, as importantly, to enable them to receive continuing education in other countries through internships, fellowships, and symposia. It is against this backdrop that we consider the Medical Congress of Armenia and the Armenian Medical World Congress to be a watershed event in the modern development of Armenian healthcare.
The Medical Congress traces its roots to the Beirut of the mid-1970s, where Armenian doctors from across the globe first convened, despite the extremely difficult conditions brought on by the Lebanese civil war. Beginning in 1974, Armenian Medical World Congresses were held once every four years in various world cities, organized by the Armenian Medical International Committee. In the meantime, as Armenia became independent and I was appointed Minister of Health, I was able to participate in the Armenian Medical World Congresses of 1992, 1995, and 1998, in Paris, Boston, and Lyon, respectively, though I was no longer serving as minister in 1998. Throughout these events, the goal of organizing similar medical congresses in Armenia was discussed extensively and remained a top priority. The feasibility of the idea was closely connected with economics while Armenia continued to grapple with great hardship. Finally, during the Armenian Medical World Congress in Toronto, in 2001, it was decided to start holding a Medical Congress in Armenia once every four years, beginning in 2003.
The Second International Medical Congress of Armenia will build on the achievemen’s of the past three decades in a number of significant ways. In the main, the event will expose local medical practitioners to a veritable wealth of new knowledge, thanks to the presentations and lectures of professors and medical experts from throughout the world, many of whom are engaged in cutting-edge research. As importantly, there will be invaluable opportunities for sharing experiences and gaining fresh insights. But we’re also cognizant of the fact that a considerable number of local healthcare professionals could miss out on such opportunities as they can’t afford the basic fee for participating in the Congress. This is why we have come up with a way to reach out to them, through nine satellite symposia that will link them to professors and doctors in Armenia, America, and Europe. We anticipate that the satellite symposia will reach more than a thousand healthcare professionals across Armenia, who will thus take part in the Congress free of charge.
S.H.: What would you say are the key challenges facing the medical establishmen’s in Armenia and Karabakh, in terms of infrastructure, availability of qualified professionals, certification, and healthcare delivery?
A.B.: Continuing education and training, and professional growth in general, are the main challenges. We have an enormous number of doctors who are experts in their fields, but given the evolving nature of science, and medicine in particular, given the extremely fast pace of international research and development, our healthcare professionals must not only gain up-to-date information about their specialties, they must also constantly improve their skills. This is why it is critically important to hold medical congresses in Armenia, which provide a consistent and reliable conduit for continued professional development. These events are particularly useful for healthcare professionals in the far-flung regions of Armenia and in Karabakh. If practitioners in Armenia lack the means to travel abroad for training and fellowship purposes, the situation is even harder for practitioners in Karabakh, who often can’t even travel to Armenia to attend symposia or congresses. In this respect, we are tremendously grateful to the VivaCell company, whose generous support will make it possible for 32 doctors and nurses from Karabakh to attend the Second International Medical Congress of Armenia.
Another challenge is professional licensing. In 1996 we instituted a licensing program whereby medical doctors would have to be certified once every five years, based on their professional capabilities and performance. That program was eventually terminated, but I’m happy to report that it will likely be revived soon. Here, too, the importance of holding medical congresses becomes clear, because they help determine the necessary criteria and put in place the standards for medical licensing and certification.
S.H.: What do you consider to be the main threats to public health in Armenia and Karabakh?
A.B.: The threats we face today fall into two categories: developing-nation illnesses such as infectious diseases, and developed-nation illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and mental-health conditions. The key issue in our struggle against these diseases is public health education. It’s about awareness. Like people across the globe, Armenia’s today spend entirely too much time in front of their computers or in their cars, don’t get enough physical exercise, and are engaged in habits and lifestyles that lead to chronic diseases. So our priority is to aggressively pursue the goal of fostering public awareness of healthy lifestyles, including diet, nutrition, smoking cessation, physical activity, and prevention. To this end, we must focus on the education of children in particular to safeguard the health of emerging generations.
S.H.: How would you rate the Armenian public’s awareness of health issues at the moment?
A.B.: I think it is a testament to the awareness and tenacity of the Armenian people that it didn’t fall prey to certain epidemics associated with extreme poverty, during the economically trying years following independence. Today, however, as Armenian civil society continues to develop, it is actually falling prey to certain lifestyles and practices associated with prosperity. So I would say there is much to be done in terms of health education and awareness, especially viewed in cultural terms. Take, for instance, our growing reliance on automobiles. If a child today were to use a bicycle to go to school, he would be laughed at by his or her classmates. You’ll notice that almost no one rides a bike in Yerevan, fearing ridicule. Why is this so? We must encourage awareness that riding a bike is not only good for one’s health, it also helps reduce our dependence on oil.
S.H.: How would you grade government-funded medical programs in Armenia and Karabakh? Do you believe the shortfalls are due to the nature of a transitional economy? Or do you think more can be done at the present?
A.B.: We have come a long way since the dark years of the 90s, when medical care was in a disarray following the collapse of the Soviet system. Since then we have made significant strides in providing the Armenian public with primary healthcare. And I think this is precisely where we should continue to focus our attention, in conjunction with efforts to foster public awareness of health issues. Safeguarding the health of the public starts with primary care, including, especially, vaccination. This is where prevention takes root, at the clinics of family doctors, it’s where better lifestyles are promoted.
S.H.: What are some of the major benefits that Diaspora professionals would reap by participating in the Medical Congress?
A.B.: Apart from providing a unique opportunity for sharing experience and knowledge with colleagues from throughout the globe, an event like the Second International Medical Congress of Armenia is a wonderful conduit for nurturing friendship between professionals from the Diaspora and Armenia, for advancing mutual understanding and collaboration in a variety of projects. By coming into contact with one another, Armenia’s and Diasporans not only have a chance to enrich their ties, they also gain a greater understanding of each other’s aspirations, challenges, and goals, with Armenia acting as a spiritual catalyst.
S.H.: What is your understanding of Armenia-Diaspora collaboration in the medical sphere, within the context of the Medical Congress?
A.B.: Armenia-Diaspora collaboration is at the core of our efforts to safeguard the health of the Armenian public. When healthcare professionals from the Diaspora engage in medical programs or events in Armenia, including the Second International Medical Congress of Armenia, what they bring to the table is much more than their expertise and donated time; they bring a level of compassion and understanding that makes their efforts all the more far-reaching.
S.H.: Do you believe that, given adequate public and/or private support, Armenia has what it takes to contribute to medical science, in terms of research and development of life-saving drugs?
A.B.: Absolutely. In the past, there has been noteworthy pharmacological research and development in Armenia. We know the capacity is there. The missing ingredient is investment.
S.H.: What are some of the significant experiences you’ve gained from your tenure as Health Minister on the one hand, and Director of the Arabkir Joint Medical Center & Institute of Child and Adolescent Health on the other?
A.B.: Back in the years when I served as the Minister of Health, the country’s healthcare system was in a shambles. The infrastructure was more or less dysfunctional, and we had to deal with an enormous number of war casualties. Given the dire economic circumstances, our options were quite limited. What we did have was our tenacity, our will to life. As Minister of Health, I explored every conceivable possibility to start rebuilding Armenia’s healthcare system, and I learned quite a bit during my official visits abroad. By 1995, these efforts led to some fundamental healthcare projects supported by the World Bank. My three challenges as Minister were to manage the country’s healthcare system, to continue acquiring knowledge and seeking guidance, and to help build that system on such a solid foundation that my successors wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Following my tenure as Minister, I turned my attention to the establishment of the Arabkir Medical Center, which in time evolved into a model medical institution. We instituted a continuing education program for doctors and nurses of the Center. We were able to obtain modern medical equipment and tools. We created a patients’ family house next to the Arabkir Medical Center for patients coming to us from the distant regions. We established a hospital school and provided psycho-social services. In addition, we gradually began opening branches in the remote regions of Armenia for the development and rehabilitation of children with physical and mental disorders.
Parallel to all these activities we created social programs for our employees as well: we organized a kindergarten for the children of workers, provided health insurance for all our staff, etc.
Today the Arabkir Medical Center is Armenia’s leading medical institution of pediatrics. What started as a small project has now grown into a full-fledged medical establishment providing comprehensive healthcare: from diagnostics, treatment, and prevention of diseases to kidney transplantation and rehabilitation.
We achieved all this step by step, demonstrating the fact that great things can be done in Armenia today, given enough dedication and resourcefulness.
S.H.: What are some of the urgent measures that you wish to take as Chairman of the Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Health Care, and Environment of the Parliament of Armenia?
A.B.: All of my priorities are top priorities. I’ll mention a few.
High on the agenda are the goals of helping make healthcare in Armenia both more affordable and more effective, and raising the health awareness of the Armenian public. An underlying goal is to bring a war-ravaged populace out of the clutches of poverty on the one hand, and demoralization on the other. We must also launch or bolster existing programs that improve the lives of persons with physical and mental disabilities. We must safeguard their rights, create opportunities for education and employment, and help eradicate the social stigma attached to disabilities.
In the environmental sphere, I would like to see new measures that ensure ecologically-conscious economic development, in a way that growth does not take place at the expense of public health and the beautiful Armenian environment.
S.H.: What advice would you give to an Armenian youth considering to go into the medical field today?
A.B.: Based on my experience at the Arabkir Medical Center alone, I know for a fact that we have a great number of capable, conscientious, dedicated youths who would make wonderful doctors or nurses. The following is what I tell them, and I would give the same advice to anyone considering a career in medicine: while top-notch education and ongoing training are key to becoming a good healthcare professional, perhaps the most important factor in becoming a great practitioner is to be spiritually devoted to the calling.