I recently had the pleasure of attending both the San Juan Basin regional science fair and the Colorado state science and engineering fair.
Before you ask what this has to do with health, let me review a few basic statistics. According to the World Economic Forum, the United States ranks 52nd in the world in the quality of mathematics and science education and 27th in developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science and engineering.
Science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields of study) are not only essential to the economy and global competitiveness of our country, they are the foundation of our nation’s science infrastructure.
Now back to health.
We live in a remarkable time in the history of medicine and public health. Substantial progress has been made in the last century in reducing the impact of human diseases ranging from infectious disease to cancer and heart disease. The life expectancy of the average human being has advanced from 50 to 81 years in the last 100 years, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Much of this improvement is attributable to better knowledge and improving technologies brought about by pioneers in medicine and public health. Think about the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, the first polio vaccine by Jonas Salk and heart bypass surgery invented by Rene Favoloro.
In our own time in the U.S., continued progress in health improvement depends on future generations of medical scientists and health-care providers. To be clear, we face some headwinds. Our aging population and the health-care needs of the newly retiring baby-boom generation demand increased health-care staffing at a time when many medical providers themselves are aging and retiring.
Improved access to health-care services depends not only on better access to insurance, but also a larger health-care workforce. Current deficits in health-care staffing resources are only predicted to increase, particularly in the important area of primary care, where much of care coordination occurs.
Meanwhile, the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes mellitus in the U.S. are challenging the notion that every generation will outlive its predecessor generation.
In short, there is a tremendous need for programs and opportunities to stimulate a renewed interest among our youth in the important fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The future of our health care and public-health infrastructure depends on nurturing today’s children to develop the skills and aspiration to enter the medical profession.
By the way, in addition to the commitment of parents and mentors, I observed a common denominator among the remarkable kids chosen to compete at the regional and state science fair – competent and committed science teachers!
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.