An Interview with Dr. Paul Zeitz
- By Tyler Cymet
- January 22, 2019
The osteopathic physician and public-health warrior talks global wellness, #MeToo, and the genius of Ben Franklin.
Dr. Paul Zeitz, author of Waging Justice: A Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth and Be Bold, has spent the past 30 years working in public health and global development projects in over 40 countries. His memoir includes the vision of what healthcare should look like, interwoven with his personal search for comfort and meaning with a rallying cry for those who desire to make the world a better place.
Zeitz is truly a public-health warrior. He brings personal experience to the policymaking arena, and his thoughtful book looks at health from a very different perspective, one that increasingly demands to be heard.
You chose an unconventional path for a physician and have pursued global, rather than individual, health issues. Is this a career path you would suggest for others?
During medical school, I was inspired by Dr. Rudolf Virchow, a physician with a broader view on medicine’s role in society. He said that medicine “must enter into the larger political and social life of our time,” showing us the barriers to healthy living and then removing them.
These words have guided my journey as a physician over the past 30 years.
Once I committed to public health and preventive medicine, I began learning about the global health crises that children in poor countries were facing unjustly, and I directed my career toward global health ever since. I strongly recommend this path for people who believe that health is a human right for all and who long for universal health systems in all countries.
Has your training as a doctor of osteopathy (DO) led you to look at global health issues differently from others in the field?
My DO training gave me a more holistic perspective on human health. Instead of focusing on curative medicine only, I was taught, and still believe, that health providers and systems should advance prevention, happiness, and well-being as equally important outcomes for people.
You have worked in Italy, Zambia, Nigeria, and around the world. Where should global health fit into the training and range of experiences for American physicians?
In today’s globalized world, I believe it is critically important to get training and experience beyond U.S. borders. By traveling and learning around the world, physicians can discover how to navigate cultural differences, open their minds to new perspectives and viewpoints, and learn to appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of American culture and our health system.
What do you think has the best chance of being solved in our lifetime: HIV/AIDS, poverty, or social injustice?
Over my lifetime, I’ve learned to fully unleash what I call “SIPO” — my own self-imposed persistent optimism — to overcome cynicism about what is really possible. My alchemy of clear-eyed optimism mixed with courage is what fuels my drive to pursue justice for all relentlessly, no matter the odds. Therefore, I believe that if we join forces, we can do it all: end poverty, end AIDS, and dramatically accelerate progress to achieve social justice.
My story in Waging Justice culminates in 2015 as I commit my life to global efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the world’s ambitious agenda for achieving social, economic, environmental, gender, and racial justice by 2030. The SDGs are shaping the future of all people and our planet in a historic convergence of justice and hope.
Already, three years have passed since the SDGs were adopted, and my commitment and faith in this agenda is intensifying with each passing moment. The SDGs are disrupting the notion that the global status quo is acceptable and unmoving. I believe we are living in the early stages of a new paradigm — an era of climate-smart, sustainable development where humanity joins forces to end poverty and create winning lives for everyone, everywhere, while living in healthy balance with the Earth.
You speak a lot about spirituality in the book. How different would you be without religion in your life?
My lifelong spiritual quest began during medical school, as I faced a daily barrage of life and death situations with my patients. To manage the stress, my curiosity took me inwards to more deeply understand my own values. I was able to figure out that my life’s purpose is to focus on the pursuit of justice based on compassion and love. My belief in these values is based on life experiences, my religious heritage as a Jew, and my patriotism as an American.
I have delved into spiritual practices — such as chanting, meditation, and yoga — to find the strength to create my life so I am living my most important values authentically. My quest brought me to spiritual practices from many faiths, including Judaism, Sufism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, native American, and indigenous African religions. Through my travels and explorations, I’ve come to believe that all religions are leading toward a single truth about the values of love, justice, and peace. In this way, my spirituality defines my life each and every day.
The #MeToo experience that you address in the book was repressed for most of your life. How do you believe repressed memories like these should be addressed by healthcare providers?
Child sexual abuse should never occur, period. Breaking the silence, education and dialogue in families, communities, and institutions is a critical first step to toward preventing all forms of child sexual abuse. I believe we can take critical actions to create societies that are abuse-free zones. It takes a comprehensive approach to reform, harmonized across government and community sectors.
First, governments must direct bold strategies that address all sectors and are backed with strong financial commitment. These strategies should include surveillance systems; meaningful monitoring; and strong health, education, and social protection partnerships. Physicians, health professionals, teachers, and social service workers should be trained to recognize early warning signs, prevent abuse, and to guide children and their families to seek help if abuse occurred.
Second, legal and judicial systems must be reformed to criminalize all forms of violence against children, including corporal punishment. Legal loopholes that prevent or inhibit prosecution must be closed. It is critical that the police and court systems have well-trained personnel dedicated to sexual violence against children. People responsible for children must also have access to trained and certified advocates who can make referrals to the health, legal, and social protection sectors and can represent survivors in court.
You talk about Ben Franklin translating bold visions into simple ideas. How would you translate your bold visions into simple ideas?
Growing up in Philadelphia, I loved visiting the house of my hero, Benjamin Franklin, utterly fascinated by his cunning inventions and aphorisms. My favorite pearl of wisdom was this simple, hopeful truth: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
As my current focus includes our planetary health, I believe that the climate emergency is the central justice issue of our time. If we act boldly and fast, we can prevent the worst consequences of climate change from human-generated carbon emissions. But without a radical transformation on how we are living, the survival of all is threatened. We need to rapidly transition to 100 percent clean and renewable energy and accelerate the use of new climate restoration technologies.
So, let me sum it up simply, truthfully, and hopefully: I believe in the genius and spirit of humanity. Our future is in our hands.
Tyler Cymet, DO, is the chief of Clinical Education for the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and a program manager for the Michigan State University Institute for Global Health. He works on issues of assessment and curriculum in medical education. He is the author of Body, Mind and Spirit, Inner Strength: A Teaching Guide for Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine, a dictionary, and a video textbook on osteopathic manipulative medicine. He has also published on bioterrorism related to the care he provided during the Postal Service anthrax attack of 2001.