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Abraham Verghese reflects on upcoming American India Foundation Symposium

aif_women-holding-baby-3In rural India, tens of thousands of mothers and newborns suffer from medical complications that would be routinely managed in the United States. All too often, the babies or mothers become severely ill, or even die.

A partnership between Stanford Medicine and the American India Foundation is hoping to change that. On Oct. 14, the first American India Foundation Symposium will bring together Indian expatriates, technologists, biomedical researchers and physicians for an afternoon-long event with speakers, panel discussions and networking. The symposium is free and open to the public.

To learn more, we reached out to Abraham Verghese, MD, the Stanford physician-author who recently won the National Humanities Medal and will be speaking at the event.

Silicon Valley and rural India seem worlds apart. How can physicians, innovators and members of the Indian diaspora here contribute?

The two worlds are very far apart, but what is common is the individuals who have a foot in both soils. Those who made it here exemplify what India does best, which is to educate and train professionals. The change in geography changed their destiny. I think what America offers (apart from the obvious material advantages and tremendous post-graduate universities), is an inner lesson on how one can break through constraints of self, how one can think big and how one can break tradition and create new ones.

It is these lessons of innovation, of scaling up, of strategic thinking that now need to be translated back to the traditional problems and constraints of India. It is something that Indian Americans have been striving to do for some decades now. I think the movement is getting more sophisticated and more refined.

Your work emphasizes the importance of one-on-one relationships and personalized care. Yet there are millions of Indian mothers and babies in need of care, and far fewer trained health-care workers. How can this gap be bridged?

The problems of scale are huge, particularly in health care. We clearly need global and pervasive public health measures and many of these are linked to problems of infrastructure and basic economic resources.

But the numbers cannot let us lose sight of the fact that the fundamental unit of population is and always will be, a sentient, caring, human being. As humans, unlike any other mammal, we have a huge need for other human beings to care for us, educate us, guide us. When we are ill, even as adults, we still have that strong need to be cared for.

I think the workforce must come in the form of trained village workers, and not in the form of physicians. Women in particular all over India are underemployed, a staggering 200 million (link to .pdf) of them by some estimates do not work other than in the household. That work is hard, but it is far less than they are capable of and what they deserve. They must be better utilized for India to continue its economic growth and reach its potential. It will take efforts such as those of the AIF, the Wadhwani Foundation, and many others who focus on such training to bridge that gap.

What role do you believe technology can play in helping Indian mothers and newborns?

The ubiquity of the cell phone has leapfrogged the limitation of telephone lines and even roads or railways. It has the potential to continue to change the landscape of health care and has already done so. I keep hearing of all kinds of innovation and startups that revolve around this unit of technology, and I don't think we've finished exploiting it.

You recently were awarded the National Humanities Medal (congratulations!). How do you think literature and the arts can help shed light on, and improve, the human condition?

I think the function of humanities in the world is really to give our lives meaning, and to help us understand what is going on, particularly when things don't work. We underestimate the power of narrative to bring about change. Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel, had so much to do with ending slavery in America: That story, a fictional one, captured the public's attention and was the turning point in the abolitionist movement. In England, one book, The Citadel, by AJ Cronin, chronicling the miserable state of health care in Welsh mining towns, was responsible for the birth of the National Health Service. Again, it did so by capturing the public's attention.

It’s a fallacy to imagine that technology and innovation alone can change lives. It begins with a story. Steve Jobs understood this so well, and the success of Apple had so much to do with his great appreciation of humanities and art and form and function, and in the story that needed to be told.

Even though humanities funding is threatened and even though at times I sense a great hubris around technology and innovation as the cure-all and end-all of our lives, still, time and again we are captured by a story: sadness and insight when we see a photo of a Syrian child washed up on a beach; the euphoria of peace in that famous photograph of a couple kissing in Times Square on V-Day, Aug 14, 1945, or the horror of war when we examine Picasso’s Guernica.

What do you hope symposium attendees walk away with?

I am optimistic that we will walk away having made some connections, having each committed to one small step, and that we will recruit more talent and resources to efforts that can change lives on both continents.

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