April 10,2017

Compassion in Global Health: An Interview with David Addiss

Note: Dr. Addiss is the former Director of Children Without Worms and has long explored and written about the emerging field of ethics in public health.

The term global health refers to a long list of issues, dozens of disciplines, innumerable ideas. But to David Addiss, one theme has gone conspicuously missing from the global discourse on global health -- “compassion.” Several years ago, the medical epidemiologist and recently departed director of CWW set out to explore the role of compassion in global health, and the silence surrounding it, by instigating conversations few in the field seem to have.

“A lot of my work as CWW director was talking to people, and I would make a point of asking them why they’re doing this, what’s meaningful to them.” Those willing to respond, he noticed, mentioned things like love and compassion, but often barely above a whisper. “So it seemed to me that we were carrying around this secret about our core values – about what really motivates us to do this work.”

In 2010, Addiss, then director of the science program at the Fetzer Institute, helped to convene a meeting at The Carter Center of leaders in global health to discuss the value of compassion and share personal stories about its role in their work. “They all said, yes, this is why we’re doing this,” he recalls of the meeting, though the experiences of one participant stand out: “Bill Foege gave a speech to the CDC in 1984 where he said, ‘If we are to maintain the reputation this institution now enjoys, it will be because in everything we do, behind everything we say, as the basis for every program decision we make—we will be willing to see faces.’ Not new laboratories or better epidemiologic methods, but the willingness to see the faces of suffering.” 

That remains a core challenge, he says. “We get so caught up in maneuvering through systems and dealing with the numbers, that it’s hard to see the faces.” And nowhere is that more challenging, he says, than in work on STH. “You know you’re having an impact, but unlike smallpox or lymphatic filariasis, the effects of STH are often subtle and not physically apparent - it’s not something you can see.” Overcoming that challenge requires what he calls “compassion at a distance.”

But how to cultivate compassion on a global scale – how to elicit, as the late comedian and performance artist Steve Ben Israel put it, “a mass uprising of compassion”? Like a Zen koan or riddle, the question has consumed him, and Addiss continues his quest for answers at the Center for Compassion & Global Health, which he founded with his wife, Julie Hliboki.

Devoted to introducing compassion to the global health discourse, the Center posts interviews on compassion with global health leaders and serves as a repository for Addiss’s writing in the lay and professional literature – a catalogue that continues to grow as global health professionals come to appreciate the role of compassion in their work. 

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