Hamilton students enrolled in Steve Wu's Health Economics class, Alan Cafruny's International Political Economy class, and Herm Lehman's Intro. to Public Health classes were invited to meet and speak with Sacerdote Great Names speaker Dr. Bernard Kouchner in a small, informal group before the large public lecture held later in the evening. Students had the opportunity to ask Dr. Kouchner questions about current challenges to healthcare access, the future of healthcare systems in Europe, as well as his own experiences working as a physician in various developing nations and as a prominent figure on the French political scene.
Globalization was a reemerging theme in his responses to students’ questions. One of Dr. Kouchner’s primary objectives for establishing Doctors Without Borders in 1971 was to address the previous restrictions on the rights of French physicians to treat patients outside of the French border.
Even when physicians were able to obtain permission from the state to take a leave of absence from their practices, they had to do so on an unpaid basis and returned to find that many of their patients had switched doctors. After Dr. Kouchner became Minister of France in 1991, he issued a decree that gave physicians the right to practice medicine outside of France and required hospitals to continue paying physicians who chose to do so.
Dr. Kouchner also spoke about the enormous shock he felt when he first started working abroad after co-founding Médecins Sans Frontières, otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders. He encountered indescribable starvation on a pandemic scale, diseases that he had never heard of during all of his time working in Paris, and a great pressure to consistently invent new immunizations and resuscitation methods in order to save patients’ lives.
Before Doctors Without Borders was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, Dr. Kouchner said that the organization was not well received. Many physicians at the time even described him and his colleagues as “hippies of medicine” rather than medical pioneers. The Nobel Peace Prize played a major role in raising awareness about the devastating sickness he saw in Africa and bringing Doctors Without Borders to the forefront of the international stage.
When asked about the role of both state and non-state actors in furthering healthcare reform, Dr. Kouchner emphasized that the implementation of an idea is always based on political grounds. In the framework of his own mission to increase medical access through Doctors Without Borders, Dr. Kouchner said, “‘preventing’ is better than ‘curing’, and the way you ‘prevent’ is by going into politics.” His role in French politics was very important in furthering the interests of Doctors Without Borders. Being a good samaritan is one thing, but political involvement is how you get people to care about an issue. “But of course, politics is difficult, explaining politics is much easier,” he added with a laugh.
Because of time constraints, many questions went unanswered, however, Dr. Kouchner left students with some thought-provoking advice: “Be illegal.” In the spirit of humanitarianism and political change, Dr. Kouchner told students “you have to be illegal to change a legal law,” and make a change.