Barbara Starfield: The Legend & The Lady

Many of us in WONCA have Barbara Starfield stories. Most recall her humour and her passion, her advocacy for primary care and her belief in the use of evidence to prove her point. For any one of the WONCA family who has undertaken research at any stage in our careers, references to Barbara Starfield’s findings are scattered throughout the papers.

We grew to depend on her – and her loyal team of students and mentees – to help us make the case for improved policies, reforms to primary care and establishment and improvement of equity in health systems. For many of us who believed in the power of comprehensive, quality, primary care delivering better health outcomes, her work convinced us that the evidence was there to support that belief. 

We also recognised that her legacy would live on in the multiple thousands of us who had taken her advice to push the boundaries of family medicine and primary care, to take the initiative in global and national policy development, to dare to take the lead.

To make sure that it is easy for our members to access Barbara’s extensive catalogue of work, WONCA created a specific resource on its website, which can be accessed here. We also established the Barbara Starfield Memorial Lecture, which is held at each World Conference, conferring a great honour on those chosen to give the lecture. The posthumous award of a WONCA Fellowship to Barbara, gave our then President, Rich Roberts, the opportunity to give a very personal and heartfelt eulogy about her life and work to the audience of her primary care friends, at the 2013 WONCA World Conference.

To say that Barbara Starfield was a good friend to family medicine is a huge understatement. Her rigorous research, speaking truth to power about the practical beneficial impact of good quality primary care, and her persistence in delivering her evidence-based message ensured that the debate about the efficacy of primary care is no longer in question. The question now is ‘how do we ensure good primary care is available globally, leaving no-one behind?’ To do Barbara’s memory justice, that is our goal.

And my Barbara Starfield story? My favourite memory of her is at the WONCA Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Cebu in 2011. Barbara was the keynote speaker, inspiring as ever. But each morning, early, we swam lengths at the same time in the pool, enjoying the peace and quiet before the work and busyness of the day. A time of exercise and quiet reflection.

Dr Donald Li, 
WONCA President


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