What is global health exactly? Global health focuses on the health needs of populations worldwide. It has both a medical and a policy dimension. If you were to define global health as a field of study, it draws on a variety of disciplines, from economics, environmental science, epidemiology, sociology, and many others. 

Global health takes up problems that are core to medicine, such as how tropical parasites impact rural populations. But it also considers larger contexts, such as how income inequality influences health outcomes.

Researchers from countries around the world contribute to our understanding of global health. One of the most important international agencies for global health is the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO was established in 1948 under the auspices of the United Nations. It brings together people from more than 150 countries to address global health. 

Why is Global Health Important?

Global health is ultimately important because our world is ever more connected, and our health as individuals is impacted by emerging global health issues and trends. The vast increase in global trade and travel in recent decades has linked nearly all the world. There are many benefits, but there are also new challenges. These take the form of infectious diseases and pandemics, such as COVID-19, but also less obvious challenges, such as healthcare in war zones and chronic diseases in wealthier countries.

Current Global Health Challenges 

There is no single list of global health issues, though the WHO lists 13 urgent global health problems. Here we will focus on half a dozen of the most pressing global health challenges. 

1. Infectious disease and pandemics

Infectious diseases are global in their impact because they do not respect human borders. Still, national policies and environmental factors play a role. Infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, Ebola, and influenza have long been a target of global health efforts. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how a disease that starts in one country can quickly spread around the world. It also illuminated many gaps in preparation and containment. 

2. Inequality

Some parts of the world are relatively wealthy, with sophisticated healthcare systems that are accessible to all. Other parts of the world have much less developed healthcare, and millions of people struggle to access the care they need, largely for financial reasons. Millions of premature deaths could be prevented each year if people had improved access to care. 

3. Environmental factors

The environment influences the global health definition in a variety of ways. For example, scientists believe the virus that causes COVID-19 originally crossed over from a wild animal. Ebola and HIV emerged in the much same way. As people spread more into formerly wild areas and come into contact with previously isolated animals, other crossover infections may occur. Thus, protecting wild spaces from human encroachment can also protect people. 

Another important environmental factor is pollution. Polluted air causes respiratory illness and millions of early deaths each year, especially in urban areas. Polluted water can poison people and fish alike. 

There is also growing research into the health impacts caused by climate change. As average temperatures climb, tropical diseases are expanding in range, afflicting patients in areas they have previously never been seen. 

4. Noncommunicable diseases 

As the world has reduced deaths from infectious diseases, noncommunicable diseases have become leading causes of death. Diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and conditions related to obesity have become prominent. While people in some parts of the world starve to death, others die from eating too much. Meanwhile, cancer becomes likelier as people live longer, and cancer has become a leading cause of death in countries with especially long life expectancy. 

5. Healthcare in war zones

Providing healthcare in war zones has long been a challenge. Lasting conflicts often produce a flood of refugees, who may be crowded into refugee camps, where infectious diseases sometimes spread. International organizations such as the WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and others work to provide healthcare to those who have been displaced or otherwise harmed by war. 

There are also growing numbers of attacks against healthcare workers. International law forbids attacking healthcare workers or facilities, but the WHO recorded more than 300 such attacks in a recent report. Health care providers are sometimes deliberately murdered, and even hospitals have been attacked

6. Food supplies

Hunger and starvation remain a problem despite improvements. Natural disasters can highlight political and economic inequalities, and many infrastructure systems are strained by growth and environmental change. Human beings rely on a relatively small number of animal and plant species for food, and these food supplies face an array of threats. Threats to food supplies include infectious diseases, invasive pests, loss of genetic diversity, and climate change. 

Global Health Issues In The Future

Global health issues and their many subspecialties will only grow in importance in coming years, as economies around the world grow larger and more interconnected. There are opportunities for vast improvements in human health, but there will also be new threats to health. Doctors will face new infectious diseases along with stubborn chronic conditions, but they can also work together globally to address them. 

If you are passionate about current health issues going on in the world and want to aid in the wellness of those around you, a career in medicine may be for you! Start your journey toward a rewarding career by applying to RUSM! Take the next step toward becoming a physician: apply for admission!

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In 2020, 91% of RUSM students passed the initial step of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®) on the first attempt. And in 2022-2023, results show yet another strong year for RUSM with a 97% first-time residency attainment rate* thus far. Located on the island of Barbados and with a network of more than 15,000 alumni, RUSM is one of the largest providers of doctors for the U.S. healthcare system. RUSM graduates practice in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico.

*First time residency attainment rate is the percent of students attaining a 2023-24 residency position out of all graduates or expected graduates in 2022-23 who were active applicants in the 2023 NRMP match or who attained a residency position outside the NRMP match.