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April 01, 2010

Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations as Tools to Protect the Right to Health

by Evelyn P. Tomaszewski

Collaboration begins with an idea or problem that is understood to be broader than the individual practitioner or organization. Collaborations provide the opportunity to work with others with shared or similar values, and to leverage resources to attain a collectively agreed-upon goal. Successful collaborations include mutual relationships and goals, a collectively identified structure, and sharing of resources and rewards. See ORAU, Collaboration: What Makes It Work (2005).

Cross-disciplinary collaborations provide the opportunity to build alliances across professions and between communities. Whether from the field of law, medicine, engineering, or social sciences, human rights advocates bring a set of core values and beliefs that can be used to build a bridge between professional communities. For example, lawyers are guided by the concept that justice is based upon the rule of law grounded in respect for the dignity and the capacity of the individual. Social work practice is rooted in the values of service to community and social justice, the belief of the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, and professional integrity and competence. NASW Code of Ethics (2008). Promoting social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients requires an understanding that the term “client” includes individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

The right to health is recognized worldwide. This right is increasingly understood to more broadly include the diverse rights that relate to health. According to the World Health Organization, advocating for and protecting human rights is linked to promoting and protecting health, and the promotion of human rights is a fundamental tenet of effectively addressing HIV/AIDS. Yet addressing these diverse rights and working to promote health and well-being requires the efforts of more than one person or a single group or profession. Successful collaborations build upon individual and professional connections, and include mutual relationships and goals, a collectively identified structure, and sharing of resources and rewards.

The belief that health is a basic human right set the stage for a cross-disciplinary collaboration—initiated by the ABA AIDS Coordinating Committee (—that brought together representatives from professional associations and guilds, nongovernmental organizations working in the United States and globally, U.S. government and academic institutions, and faith-based organizations and international corporations, as well as individual HIV/AIDS advocates and consumers. Collaborative partners wanted to create the opportunity to build bridges between colleagues currently addressing HIV human rights and those practitioners who do not identify their day-to-day work as addressing HIV/AIDS or health. A series of forums, held within the larger ABA Midyear Meeting, as well as stand-alone conferences, were organized to allow participants to fully explore cutting-edge legal issues surrounding HIV prevention, treatment, access to care, and other critical practice areas.

One example is the conference that was held in fall 2009, HIV/AIDS and the Rule of Law: Human Rights at Home and Abroad. Experts addressed innovative HIV screening initiatives and the impact of policies limiting access to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis treatment and international trade issues during the “Access to HIV Treatment and Care at Home and Abroad” panel. During the “Most-at-Risk Populations” panel, speakers discussed the impact of racial and ethnic disparities in access to prevention, care, and treatment, while panelists for the “Faith-based Approaches to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic” addressed the cultural context of HIV/AIDS services and faith-based programs, including the impact of discrimination experienced by persons living with HIV/AIDS because of religious or spiritual beliefs. “HIV/AIDS, Human Rights, and Corporate Responsibilities” panelists highlighted private-public partnerships and the corporate communities engaging in international response to the HIV pandemic, and the “Bridging the Medical and Legal Communities for People Living with HIV/AIDS” panel highlighted model collaborations between communities and successful supportive policy developments that bridge the legal and medical communities. Throughout the program, panel moderators engaged the audience in dialogue drawn from the shared collaborative vision: health (including HIV/AIDS) as a human right.

This example demonstrates how cross-disciplinary education can be used as a tool to build opportunities to help our own colleagues engage in and understand HIV/AIDS as a public health pandemic that mandates an active and broad-based response from diverse professional communities. Collaborative partners hope to expand and transform this tool through participation in professional and consumer-focused meetings hosted by domestic and international societies and associations.

Evelyn P. Tomaszewski

Evelyn P. Tomaszewski is senior policy advisor, Human Rights and International Affairs Division, National Association of Social Workers.