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In Memoriam: Paul Farmer, MD, PhD

Dr. Paul Farmer with MCN’s Luis Retta at University of Texas in 2019.
Dr. Paul Farmer with MCN’s Luis Retta at University of Texas in 2019.

This week, the world lost one of its most vocal and effective champions of health equity, Paul Farmer, MD, PhD.

Dr. Farmer is best known for his work in Haiti and, later, in Rwanda, with Partners in Health, where he brought care to the most underserved on the planet through community-based and people-centered care. His work on multidrug-resistant tuberculosis pushed the infectious disease into the global spotlight in the face of a dearth of funding and interest. With about a quarter of the world’s population infected with TB and at risk of becoming sick with the bacterium, and only about one in three people with active drug-resistant TB accessing treatment in 2020, his critical work and the structures he built to address this ongoing health equity issue will continue. Migrant Clinicians Network’s Deliana Garcia, Director of Emerging Issues and International Projects, and a good friend of and long-time collaborator with Dr. Farmer’s, recounted Dr. Farmer’s influence on her own work in TB and health equity.

“Paul introduced me early on to the strong work that can be done in global TB from the US side in allyship, and in partnership with civil society and programs in other countries,” Garcia said.

But perhaps his biggest contribution to global health equity – and largest influence on the Migrant Clinicians Network team -- came from his ethical framework of care. He built his efforts on solidarity, compassion, and partnership. He loudly declared that everyone has a right to quality health care. He recognized that socialization defined our interpretations of basic determinants of health and who is worthy to receive care. He vocally and effectively pushed for any efforts from PIH to be informed by local leaders who understand best the community and its needs. Integration with and elevation of the local community were at the heart of his work.

“Dr. Farmer approached [health care] in a way that really made many think about the root of the problem with the health care systems in place,” said Luis Retta, MCN’s Health Network Associate for Medical Review for Immigrants. “Dr. Farmer saw that many were focusing on the wrong things. Many were focusing on how they could deliver care within the current working system.  Dr. Farmer, however, focused on what type of care we should be delivering and let that be his north star.”


Dr. Paul Farmer, seated with MCN’s Deliana Garcia, at University of Texas in 2019.
Dr. Paul Farmer, seated with MCN’s Deliana Garcia, at University of Texas in 2019.

“He has influenced me greatly,” said Ed Zuroweste, MD, MCN’s Founding Medical Director. “He has helped a lot with the way I think about public health and working with communities.” Dr. Zuroweste recounted Dr. Farmer’s many feats, as a book author, researcher, health equity philosopher, and doctor. “Paul was one of those very rare people that had the big picture globally of what should happen, but also was very good on the doctor-patient, person-to-person relationship,” he said. “To have even one of those qualities is remarkable. To have it in just one person – well, that’s superhuman! He was truly one of a kind.”

“He set an example, being a person who stepped forward in good faith, always, to bring what resources he could to bear on a situation -- and he worked hard to include local individuals in any effort so that it had both community leadership and sustainability,” Garcia added.

And his work was effective. In areas of Haiti where PIH is working, communities have higher vaccination rates and lower infant mortality and malnourishment. Thousands of lives have been saved; thousands more have been bettered – and his work continues on in the lives and hearts of those working diligently to bring health equity to the most underserved. Dr. Farmer was a hero to many of us at MCN. We are grateful for his life and vision, and we carry forward on the path to health equity for the most underserved, with his incredible legacy in our hearts.

Learn more about Dr. Farmer, his life, and the work of PIH on their website: Watch the 2018 documentary on Dr. Farmer, Bending the Arc, on Netflix. 


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