Horton: Planetary health is worth fighting for

March 9, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

On Thursday evening, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, spoke to an audience at Berg Hall as the capstone to a symposium sponsored by Stanford Medicine and the Rambam Health Care Campus. The talk, while open to the public, was mostly attended by attendees of the symposium, a handful of graduate and medical students, and curious fans of The Lancet, like yours truly.

This was Horton’s first visit to Stanford University, and he opened his talk with an explanation of how his invitation to this symposium came about.

In 2014, The Lancet published an “An open letter for the people in Gaza,” which sparked incredible controversy. Horton described how he and his family experienced vitriol from critics who accused him of anti-Semitism online and off-line. Horton then relayed his shock when he received an invitation from Rambam, an Israeli hospital, to visit Israel and take part in a dialogue on the issues discussed in the letter.

“I thought this was fake news, because I could not imagine anybody writing me a letter and extending me a hand of friendship in this way,” said Horton.

Detailing the collaborations that followed between The Lancet and both Israeli and Palestinian scholars and physicians, Horton said, “I hope that if we work with our Palestinian friends, telling their stories of hopes and dreams for nationhood, and if we work with Israeli friends to tell stories of their futures and hopes for their land, we can bring together these great peoples into some kind of dialogue … health through peace, peace through health. The relationship between the two is intimate.”

Horton also touched on his role at The Lancet today, portraying editors as “stewards of a repository of data in our journals … sitting amid a storm of forces that shape our discipline and our profession.”

One of these forces Horton discussed was the “contraction of the science base in the United States and a growth of the science base in China.”

Horton praised “the magnetic desire of the Chinese government to engage scientists and build international networks of science and invest in them in meaningful ways,” while questioning the current American “political climate where anti-science is flourishing.”

Horton’s rumination on society and health seemed to transcend boundaries, highlighting issues such as gender equality, media and nationalism that are prevalent in today’s political and social debates. He gave a shoutout to International Women’s Day, urging the audience to “celebrate the achievements of women in science and health” as well as recognizing the importance of intersectionality in measuring progress for women’s health.

Horton also mentioned the place of media in medical journals and global health: “The truth is that now we are also publishing for the media … and media scrutiny of our work (including social media) is exceptionally important in thinking about the quality or the subject of the work we publish.”

Finally, Horton honed in on the titular theme of the talk, “The rage against the global.” Pointing to Brexit and other isolationist policies, Horton exhorted that transnational threats to health require global cooperation. Starting with the positive status of global health, Horton acknowledged that preventable mortality is decreasing yearly and credited President Trump’s National Security Strategy for encouraging investment in basic health systems in underdeveloped countries. However, Horton was also unafraid to highlight challenges, asking, “How healthy are our democracies?”

With this angle, Horton explained his conception of planetary health, which “aims to bring the disciplines of environmental science, political science, economics and social science all to bear on the subject of health,” and declared that Stanford, as an interdisciplinary hub, is “the perfect place where planetary health could flourish as a discipline.”

In closing, Horton laid out four suggestions for achieving planetary health. First, that “the entire scholarly community [should] mobilize around a renewed commitment to Enlightenment knowledge for social progress.”

Second, Horton encouraged the use of data in a “slightly sharper and more courageous way” by “holding our governments and decision makers accountable for what they do.”

Third, he suggested that journals like The Lancetneed to be advocates for open science — we need to believe in tearing down the barriers that stop people from accessing that information, generating that information and disseminating it. We need to be strong voices; in a sense, the moral conscious of our community, holding us accountable.”

Finally, Horton advocated for the science community to have “the courage to make extraordinary collaborations.”

Pointing to a map of the area around Rambam Hospital and the hypothesized site of the first human migration, Horton described “a vision of our people moving around the world, flourishing and creating health and science for the future of our nations and the future of humanity.”

Feeling inspired, I left the Li Ka Shing Center reflecting on Horton’s parting words in regards to planetary health: “It’s something worth fighting for.”


Contact Samantha Wong at slwong ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Samantha Wong '18 is the former Executive Editor of vol. 252 and former Managing Editor of The Grind. She is majoring in Human Biology with a minor in History. To reach her, please contact slwong 'at' stanford.edu.

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