Public Health

Another Strike for Russian Healthcare

© Audrey Sel

After Russia’s long-awaited tax-hike on alcohol, an attempt to curb a historic fight against alcoholism and binge-drinking, hope grew for the future of the nation’s public health. But after a devastating drought destroyed 1.2 billion dollars worth of crops in July/August, and the nation unexpectedly demanded an end to 20 years of U.S.-supported public health programs, Russian health seems to be making more headlines:  The New York Times reports that Russians are now more inclined to adopt Western-style medicine in their home country, for a price.

Despite risks, an increasing number of Russians are signing up for clinical drug trials and medical experiments.  The Times quoted one patient’s response after accepting to self-administer daily injections in the stomach for 2 weeks, “In addition to losing 22 pounds in a year, I became more lively; I walk easier and I have energy.” This attitude towards medical testing has quickly created a pool of willing test subjects, eager to embrace any chance they get to partake in medical experiments. President Vladamir Putin welcomes the “dream patients” as well, along with big drug companies, new job opportunities, foreign investments, and the public benefits attached. The U.S. likewise benefits – drugs are now routinely prescribed in the States after undergoing e clinical testing in Russia.

But this “net benefit” to Russian public health seems to hint at larger issues. Many point their finger to a lacking health care system, causing many Russian citizens to turn to experimental medicine and procedures. However, based on data collected in 2010, only 4.6 percent of Russians with a health problem refused to consult with a health professional because they could not afford health services or drugs, compared to 20.5 percent of Ukrainians and 58.1 percent of Azerbaijanis. Approximately 45.1 percent reported treating it themselves. The reason may not lie in health care alone; the surge in Russian test subjects may simply be another product of Russia’s transition.

Consider the nation’s long history of people-farms, household food production, and a farm-to-table food system (and without all the boasting). The Russian immigrant mentality is rarely studied, but a few studies have understood the loss in translation. As a culture, Americans strongly believe in independence and self-management when it comes to their health. Russians, on the contrary, after hardships experienced just before and after the decline of the Soviet Union, have grown slightly less patient in today’s world. The idea of self-management has slowly been replaced with the idea that the doctor is meant to heal, thus replacing sickness with health. But John Lewis, vice president for the Association of Clinical Research Organizations, stated for The Times, “Clinical trials should be viewed as experiments, as investigations, not as treatment.”

It’s easy to pin the blame on the Russian public, but it’s clear that this is a case of cause and effect. Pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Eli Lilly, Novartis, are giving Russians exactly what they asked for – a quick answer to their problems. But will medication cure Russia’s ongoing troubles, or should it halt efforts to catch up with Western clinical drug trials before it ends up like the U.S.?

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