The term “Global Health” conjures up a number of images: sterilized hospitals, syringes, people with advanced degrees saving lives clad in scrubs and stethoscopes.
Medical professionals are without a doubt integral to the success of global health efforts; they are responsible for the lifesaving techniques and knowledge that have essentially eradicated polio and controlled infectious diseases like cholera and yellow fever.
However, they are not the entire picture but only a very important piece of the complicated puzzle that is global health.
Researchers are increasingly finding that people skilled in other disciplines, such as the social sciences and humanities, are just as important in combating poor health worldwide.
Where medical expertise was once deemed the ultimate key to improving lives around the world, groups such as Global Health Corps (GHC) have identified non-medical links in the public health chain that need overhauling to allow current medical science to unlock its potential.
Thats why only three of the Africa-bound GHC fellows this year are MDs.
“Global health issues are very complex,” said CEO of GHC Barbara Bush. “They’re so rooted in poverty, they’re so rooted in education — or lack of education — issues. There’s a lot of gender issues that play into poor health outcomes. I think that’s why we need very different thinkers and different folks at the table.”
These “different thinkers” include architects to former Restoration Hardware employees. Bush has called these people “systems thinkers” — the kind of people who can improve health outcomes by attacking barriers to health that lurk below the surface.
These GHC fellows, all under the age of 30, have already taken this challenge onto the ground. In Rwanda, architects have worked to prevent the spread of airborne illness by redesigning airflow in hospitals. Former retail employees, skilled in the arena of logistics and organization, have already begun an overhaul of logistical systems that failed to contain the Ebola outbreak.
GHC’s Africa initiative is not the only organization to recognize the need for interdisciplinary thinking in global health. Rafael Rangel-Aldao, scientist, entrepreneur and owner of R&D Health Holdings Ltd., is calling for a “systems-based” approach in Latin America as well.
“Many developing countries in the Americas have yet to benefit from biotechnology not because of inherent problems with either the science or technology, but rather because most nations lack a system for integrating the different participants in the research, development and manufacturing chain,” wrote Aldao in Nature.
“…The relative strength in trained personnel and laboratory facilities present in some countries in no way guarantees a successful capability for biotechnological applications of economic value or impact on development.”
Research has suggested that biotechnology could be used to greatly enhance the agrifood sector in the economies of many nations in Latin America, yet the isolationist natures of research, enterprise and the public seem to have prevented this.
It is problems like these, not simply a lack of new remedies, technologies, and medical techniques that are holding public health back.
– Emma Betuel