Our Unhealthy Hero Complex

I was walking through a hospital on the other day on my way to a presentation and a number of things crossed my mind. One of them is the concept of the hero. Specifically, there was a fundraising campaign that was being promoted in the hospital about recognizing the heros in your life.

In this case, health care workers were described as heros. I think that when we start down that road — from military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and health care workers — we further distance ourselves from the bigger mission these brave, hard-working people actually serve. Soldiers — professional ones anyway — are primarily serving to protect their country with the ultimate aim of peace. Police are similiar; “to serve and protect” is their motto. These are hard jobs and ones that often require a level of risk and committment that goes beyond normal. But defining them as heros can suggest something otherworldly that doesn’t fit — and I would argue sometimes hurts rather than helps.

Take for example the Toronto General Hospital’s ‘Honor Your Hero’ campaign to encourage patients and families to donate to the hospital to recognize (presumably) the heroic efforts of the health care teams in providing them care. The idea of supporting health care and hospitals (which most people in Canada don’t realize are still charities, not government entities despite receiving funding from these bodies) is a good one. The health care teams that work in these centres are made up of well-trained, generally well-paid professionals who are focused and committed to doing the best they can to improve the health of those who walk or are wheeled through the doors. In other words, they are doing their job and when they do it well, individuals lead healthier lives.

Contrast that with teachers, day care staff, or even social workers. They, too are doing jobs that require long hours, dedication, training and the ability to handle a lot of complexity at once. How often are they called heroes? Is their mission any less valuable to our overall health and wellbeing? When this group does its job, our society is healthier.

This is not meant to be a “who is more important” debate. It is also not an ‘either/or’ debate. From a systems perspective, both are vitally important groups to our society. Nor am I suggesting that healthcare workers should be paid less or that either group is any more worthy of the title of ‘hero’. What I am suggesting is that our frame of one as a hero and the other as not does us all a disservice (including those that have to wear that heavy label). It places inordinately heavy emphasis on one part of the system, rather than looking at the bigger picture of health in a social context.

In this month’s Walrus magazine, this point was given a further hue by Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. In this short, but very focused piece, he points to the cost of hero worship (my words, not his) and how we’ve protected health care at all costs while allowing education to spiral down to a point where it will be hard to recover. Looking at the implications surrounding the deficit cutting in the 1990’s by Canadian federal and provincial governments led by Chretien/Martin, Klein, & Harris and most others and how in the effort to protect health care they let education dwindle. A ‘teaser’ of the article is available here. Martin makes the case that our desire to protect health care at the expense of education may backfire and I agree.

If you look at what makes a society healthy or not, health care is only one of a number of contributing factors. Education is one of the biggest. So is a healthy economy, which is linked to productivity, which is spurred by education. Oh yes, and those who provide the services in health care can only do so if they’re well educated.

When we are most vulnerable and our physical or mental health and wellbeing is most compromised we want a trusted, competent health care professional to turn to. But if we want to reduce the severity, onset and extention of these problems and have a population who might best be able to help us in the community and prevent problems from occurring, we need education.

Perhaps it is time to look at this from a systems perspective and take the truly heroic steps of making all of our social determinants of public health professionals, not just those that fit a certain roles, the focus of our support.

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