Interview with Professor Louis Loutan: The Geneva Health Forum

19 August 2009

Just a few days after the World Health Assembly, the Geneva Health Forum will take place here in Geneva. The event, which takes place at the Conference Centre on 25-28 May, is being organized for the second time, and will bring together more than 1,000 people coming from all over the world. One of the main persons behind this event is Professor Louis Loutan of the University of Geneva.

Q: Professor Loutan, how did it all start?

In 2006 Geneva Hospital was celebrating its 150th anniversary. For more than twenty years the hospital has been engaged in inter-
national projects — in Bosnia, Cameroon, Mongolia, Rwanda, etc. — this is part of its strategy. So for the 150th anniversary, the Board of Directors decided that we should hold both a local and an international event. When we started to think about it, we realized that Geneva is not only the humanitarian capital of the world but also the health capital of the world. Here you find international organizations, NGOs, the pharmaceutical industry, interest organizations, the Global Fund, GAVI Alliance (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization). However, there is not one forum that brings together all the different stakeholders. So this is what we organized. Last time we had more than 900 participants, which is extraordinary since we do not have the support of any medical company or association.

It was a huge success, and people thought it was a great idea that all the participants were on a level of equality. The Geneva Health Forum is in fact an informal event for different actors with no political agenda, and it’s the only place where all the different actors will have a chance to meet and to engage in constructive discussions across different borders.

We also had a marketplace with forty-seven booths. This too was fantastic because you would have big pharmaceutical companies positioned opposite NGOs like Doctors without Borders.

We had done something that created lots of enthusiasm, and we were told that we should do it again, so that is what we are going to do just one week after the World Health Assembly in 2008.

This year we have adopted the following theme as a starting point for the Geneva Health Forum: "Towards Global Access to Health". At present, you have all these health initiatives — such GAVI, the Global Fund, etc. — who are starting to use some of their funds in the field of basic health care. What will happen when they are no longer doing this?

Q: Would you like it to become an annual event?

There is a huge amount of work involved in the organization of such an event. If it becomes an annual event, you would have to start
preparing for the next one immediately after finishing the previous one — and this is not possible. First of all the team would be exhausted, and then it’s such a lot of work. Today, we have more than 700 persons who intend to participate and about 200 speakers, so we are close to 900 persons.

In a long-term perspective, the Forum should become a centre for debates, innovations and that’s the reason why we invite people from the private sector, the World Economic Forum… The more diversified the population the better, so that health issues can be taken into account in other contexts and perspectives. It is also important that it remains a forum where everybody can participate — they represent the patients, civil society, politics, etc. For instance, we do not want to issue an important declaration at the end of the Forum, simply because there are plenty of other conferences that do so — often without any follow up. I think that slowly we will built up a network of people from different horizons who are interested in health issues and access to health care, and from there we can create a platform. We can eventually set up a small local forum in Africa or elsewhere, and then organize a big forum here every second year. This is something we are discussing. Why does one attend conferences in general? Often it’s for networking and to meet people. That’s the reason why the market place is important. Secondly, to learn something about the evolution of the field, to be involved in a debate or to learn something new. That’s the essential for all the conferences.

Q: How successful have you been in mobilizing people to attend?

The first time we organized it, if was not an easy task. This time, we are attempting to get people from the private sector, the public sector, etc. First of all, we are not the World Economic Forum; for instance, it’s easy to ask an economist to attend an economic forum. When you ask the same economist to come and talk about the economy in a forum dedicated in a health it is far more difficult. However, it has been far easier to organize this time than before. Every time we organize a seminar, it will become easier.

Q: You are the man behind this event. What is your motivation?

I have always been interested in having an international dimension, and that was the reason why, already as a young man, I followed courses in tropical medicine. Then, I went to Niger working among the nomads for five years, setting up a system of basic health care. Later, I went to Boston to continue my studies within the field of public health. Once back in Geneva, I worked with poor and marginalized people in Geneva. It was a kind of humanitarian medical assistance, but for the local, less-privileged part of the population. Social medicine is what it is called in the United States.

I think I’m extremely lucky and I never thought that I would end up in a faculty of medicine, but finally you realize that with the globalized world there is a kind of interdependency taking shape. What is happening today in China can influence what is happening here; the life style in Cape Town is close to our own, etc. We are open to the world in Geneva; we have to be…