Just What the Doctor Ordered: A Script for Improving Global Health

Out of the approximately 52 million people that die yearly, only some of them are dying from old age; most of the deaths around the world are due to a huge variety of ailments or accidents. The Global Burden of Disease Study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has determined what diseases are costing the most good health. Take a look at the chart below, which shows the major worldwide health problems:

This shows the global burden of disease. Blue = non-contagious diseases, red = contagious diseases, green = accidents. The darker the color, the faster this problem is growing.


 Big data is powerful; it can help us identify what the most pressing problems are. But the huge variety of worthy causes can be paralyzing… How can we know where to focus our time, money, and resources?

No. Dun wanna. Too much to think about.

Instead of becoming overwhelmed, we can use effective altruism to guide our choices. The bottom line of this movement is that if you want to do good, you should seek to do the most good possible. There are three guiding principles of effective altruism:


Is the problem really big?


Is the problem easy or difficult to change?


Is everyone else ignoring this problem?

Problems that have all of these traits are the ones where we should direct resources. With that in mind, I’ve identified four areas where development projects and private citizens alike could direct their resources to make large strides in improving global health.

Communicable Diseases


Since development agencies began focusing on improving health in developing countries, a lot of aid has gone towards preventing and treating infectious diseases in children. These efforts have had a large measure of success, but in 2012, infectious diseases accounted for 46% of the burden of disease worldwide across all age groups. Furthermore, many of these diseases, like tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases, are relatively cheap to prevent or cure. And, for the most part, the plight of adults in developing countries have been ignored by foreign aid. Therefore, this problem meets all of the criteria set forth by effective altruism; it’s a huge problem, it has a simple solution, and it’s been ignored on the global stage. If you’d like to help with this issue, consider donating to Against Malaria, which distributes insecticide-treated nets, or Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which treats and prevents parasitic infection; both of these initiatives help prevent the spread of communicable diseases in both adults and children, and have been shown to be extremely cost-effective and far-reaching.

Vehicular Safety


Global burden of disease for people ages 15 – 49 (teenagers and working adults)

Take a look at the green section of the chart to the right. It represents loss of health due to injuries, and it’s taking up nearly a fifth of the overall burden of health for working-aged people. Clearly injuries, particularly road injuries, are a pressing cause. And yet vehicular safety is highly neglected, particularly in developing countries, as motorization outstrips the pace of safety regulation. However, this problem could certainly be solved with help from developed nations with solid infrastructure that could use their resources and experience to help developing nations create safer roads and regulations. Reducing vehicular road injuries is worthy by the standards of effective altruism – it’s a vast problem, it has a clear solution, and it is neglected, as rapid motorization  leaves safety in the dust.

Psychiatric Services


Although 25% of the global population is afflicted with a mental health issue at some point in their lives, there is too little investment in mental health services globally to meet the needs of this enormous demand. An excellent way to improve the overall health of the world would be to increase global access to mental health care providers. This could be achieved in several ways: training providers, creating mental health clinics and organizations, leading stigma-reducing campaigns, and educating people about how mental health services could benefit them and their mental well-being. This huge and neglected burden has a solution; there just needs to be a larger amount of funding for this problem.

Research Pain and Pain Management

fe9bee_0861492e788d465284b28a6a51d83faeIf you scroll back up to the first diagram of global burden of disease, you’ll see that back and neck pain, as well as migraines, take up quite a bit of space in the non-communicable disease section. However, pain, especially chronic pain, is not well understood, and pain management research is still in the beginning stages. However, chronic pain is a health problem that millions of people around the globe deal with daily; in fact, the burden of non-communicable diseases is very consistent from country to country. Therefore, in order to make a dent in this neglected, difficult, and sizable problem, further research is needed. Given that back and neck pain create such a large problem on a global scale, more funding should be directed towards pain research and pain management.

Ultimately, there are many ways to go about improving global health. Using the principles of effective altruism and the results from the Global Burden of Disease Study, I have highlighted some of the best directions resources, both from private citizens and large organizations, could go in order to create the most positive change. However, these four areas do not cover all of the 52 million people that die yearly, and while I do think that doing more good is better than some good, doing some good is better than doing none at all. There are many other worthy causes that could lighten the burden of disease – saving even one more life is a victory.

For more information on the movement of effective altruism, read Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill. For an in-depth story on the Global Burden of Disease Study, pick up Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients.  by Jeremy Smith.