Taking health care to Nepal

Jan 24, 2012

Richard Keidan is one of this state’s most accomplished physicians.  A native Detroiter, he is a highly respected surgical oncologist at William Beaumont Hospital, and directs the hospital’s multidisciplinary melanoma clinic. He lives in Bloomfield Hills with his wife Betsy and his two kids, when they are home from college. He is widely published, is also a professor of surgery at Wayne State, and probably has no money worries of the kind most of us face.

But though this is his home and his profession, it is not what he considers his life’s work. Three or four times a year, he climbs into a plane and goes to Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, for about a month at a time. He flies to Katmandu, and then treks into the interior, where he climbs mountains and braves the bracing winds to live in a tent, among villagers in their huts.

There, with a Nepalese mountain guide named Namgyal Sherpa, he has established something called the Miles Levin Nepal Foundation for Health and Education. “The vast majority of people live in rural areas and don’t have access to a physician,“ he told me. Instead, there are health care stations, with workers who have perhaps a few years of rudimentary training.

Philanthropy is an American tradition, and many American physicians have gone to developing countries  and provided health care for a time. Dr. Keidan respects them, but has no interest in doing that. “You help people, yes, but when you leave, nothing really changes.“ he said. Instead, he’s interested in helping Nepal to help itself. His foundation is helping a new medical school, the Patan Academy for Health Sciences, which is designed to teach doctors who will agree to spend four years in rural areas.

The foundation, which was named after a Detroit teenager whose blog about his battle with cancer became nationally famous, is also  helping sponsor a hydroelectric project, a school, and is trying to bring toilets to every home in a small town called Dipsung.

Over lunch the other day, Dr. Keidan said that while he has spent his career in America providing a form of elite, specialized, and higher-end health care, his experience in Nepal has taught him something. “You get a far bigger bang for your buck, in terms of medical care, by putting money into primary care and, especially, public health services,” he said.

Proper sanitation will do more to extend life than anything else, he told me. I asked if he saw any implications for this country. He said he did, more and more Interestingly, Keidan is a strong supporter of President Obama, and a supporter of the much-maligned health care plan the president pushed through congress.

“It is absolutely indefensible that people don’t automatically have access to primary health care in this country,” he said. He thinks the problem with the president’s plan is mainly that people don’t understand what it actually does.

Dr. Keidan thinks public health is important for everyone in the world, which is why he does what he does in Nepal, a country he fell in love with when he first trekked through it in 1983.

And I wonder if we could benefit by applying some of his principles in Michigan. I think the answer is pretty clear.  

More information about the foundation can be found at www.miles2nepal.org