Intended for healthcare professionals

Reviews Personal views

Poverty, health, and the role of doctors

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 06 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:860
  1. Bassem Saab, associate professor (,
  2. Jumana Antoun, family doctor
  1. Department of Family Medicine, American University of Beirut

    The World Health Organization defines health as a state of physical, psychological, and social wellbeing. By this definition doctors are responsible not just for treating diseases but also taking care of patients' social and psychological welfare, which includes helping to alleviate poverty.

    With an increase in poverty worldwide “health for all” remains an elusive goal. In at least nine countries in the Arab world more than 30% of the population are in poverty. As well as the increase in the number of people in poverty, wealth continues to be distributed unevenly, with a widening gap between rich and poor people. Countries with greater inequality in income also have higher mortality and morbidity—owing partly to lack of access to good quality health care among poorer people.

    Doctors can contribute to poverty by asking for unnecessary investigations

    Poverty and ill health are mutually reinforcing. Poverty leads to poor nutrition and hygiene, resulting in a higher likelihood of disease; disease often further impoverishes poor people through absenteeism and reduced productivity. The costs can be overwhelming. Between 1990 and 1994 in Bangladesh 21% …

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