Medicine, the practice concerned with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease.
The World Health Organization at its 1978 international conference held in the Soviet Union produced the Alma-Ata Health Declaration, which was designed to serve governments as a basis for planning health care that would reach people at all levels of society. The declaration reaffirmed that
health, which is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, is a fundamental human right and that the attainment of the highest possible level of health is a most important world-wide social goal whose realization requires the action of many other social and economic sectors in addition to the health sector.
In its widest form, the practice of medicine—that is to say, the promotion and care of health—is concerned with this ideal.
Organization of health services
It is generally the goal of most countries to have their health services organized in such a way to ensure that individuals, families, and communities obtain the maximum benefit from current knowledge and technology available for the promotion, maintenance, and restoration of health. In order to play their part in this process, governments and other agencies are faced with numerous tasks, including the following: (1) They must obtain as much information as is possible on the size, extent, and urgency of their needs; without accurate information, planning can be misdirected. (2) These needs must then be revised against the resources likely to be available in terms of money, manpower, and materials; developing countries may well require external aid to supplement their own resources. (3) Based on their assessments, countries then need to determine realistic objectives and draw up plans. (4) Finally, a process of evaluation needs to be built into the program; the lack of reliable information and accurate assessment can lead to confusion, waste, and inefficiency.
Health services of any nature reflect a number of interrelated characteristics, among which the most obvious, but not necessarily the most important from a national point of view, is the curative function; that is to say, caring for those already ill. Others include special services that deal with particular groups (such as children or pregnant women) and with specific needs such as nutrition or immunization; preventive services, the protection of the health both of individuals and of communities; health education; and, as mentioned above, the collection and analysis of information.
Levels of health care
In the curative domain there are various forms of medical practice. They may be thought of generally as forming a pyramidal structure, with three tiers representing increasing degrees of specialization and technical sophistication but catering to diminishing numbers of patients as they are filtered out of the system at a lower level. Only those patients who require special attention either for diagnosis or treatment should reach the second (advisory) or third (specialized treatment) tiers where the cost per item of service becomes increasingly higher. The first level represents primary health care, or first contact care, at which patients have their initial contact with the health-care system.
Primary health care is an integral part of a country’s health maintenance system, of which it forms the largest and most important part. As described in the declaration of Alma-Ata, primary health care should be “based on practical, scientifically sound and socially acceptable methods and technology made universally accessible to individuals and families in the community through their full participation and at a cost that the community and country can afford to maintain at every stage of their development.” Primary health care in the developed countries is usually the province of a medically qualified physician; in the developing countries first contact care is often provided by nonmedically qualified personnel.
The vast majority of patients can be fully dealt with at the primary level. Those who cannot are referred to the second tier (secondary health care, or the referral services) for the opinion of a consultant with specialized knowledge or for X-ray examinations and special tests. Secondary health care often requires the technology offered by a local or regional hospital. Increasingly, however, the radiological and laboratory services provided by hospitals are available directly to the family doctor, thus improving his service to patients and increasing its range. The third tier of health care, employing specialist services, is offered by institutions such as teaching hospitals and units devoted to the care of particular groups—women, children, patients with mental disorders, and so on. The dramatic differences in the cost of treatment at the various levels is a matter of particular importance in developing countries, where the cost of treatment for patients at the primary health-care level is usually only a small fraction of that at the third level; medical costs at any level in such countries, however, are usually borne by the government.
Ideally, provision of health care at all levels will be available to all patients; such health care may be said to be universal. The well-off, both in relatively wealthy industrialized countries and in the poorer developing world, may be able to get medical attention from sources they prefer and can pay for in the private sector. The vast majority of people in most countries, however, are dependent in various ways upon health services provided by the state, to which they may contribute comparatively little or, in the case of poor countries, nothing at all.