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Innovation Forum Recaps: Priorities in Global Health Panel and Discussion

March 5, 2012

Priorities in Global Health Panel and Discussion

Written by Laura Mansfield

Persistent poverty and the systematic increase in the inequality of wealth are the primary challenges in the field of global health today, according to a panel of experts who participated in the session “Priorities in Global Health” as a part of the 2012 Innovation Forum.

(Slide courtesy of James Pfeiffer)

Panelists were challenged to identify issues in global public health and innovative ways to address those issues. Members of the panel included:

  • Onyinye Eheh, first-year master of public health student in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington School of Public Health.
  • Stephen Gloyd, associate chair of the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington.
  • James Pfeiffer, associate professor of Anthropology and Health Services in the University of Washington Global Health Department.
  • Clarence Spigner, professor of health services and adjunct professor of American Ethnic Studies and Global Health at the University of Washington.
  • Johanna Crane, assistant professor in the UW Bothell School of  Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

Each speaker gave a short presentation on their area of expertise followed by an audience question and answer session. Here are highlights from each presentation:

Onyinye Eheh 

Eheh is studying public health with a focus on adolescent health. “People think young people are healthy,” she said. “But if you look at the factors that affect youth today – violence, drugs, mental illness – they are in dire need of help.” Ehah noted that many lifestyle decisions (smoking, drug use, and sexual behavior) begin during the adolescent years.

Eheh has worked with adolescents both in her native Nigeria and in downtown Atlanta. Whatever the environment, she stressed the importance of involving adolescents when developing services and interventions aimed at teens. “Young people have a voice and can move public health in a positive way,” she said.

Stephen Gloyd

Gloyd began by discussing the increase in disparity and inequality in developing nations. “What
we’re seeing is something different and new and bad,” he said. “Globalization has not been universally positive.”

Gloyd identified two types of innovation:
First, “non innovative” innovations. This type of innovation is based upon fashionable trends that were designed to fit into a broken system. One such example is the use of traditional birth attendants.  “What better innovation could you have than one that fits the austerity system that cuts out nurses?”  He also cited HIV innovations that did not treat patients with the virus.

Innovative solutions cut across the box of normalcy to address the underlying issues, he said. Gloyd said the biggest innovation of the last year has been the Occupy movement, which has shed light on the problem of inequality. “The challenge for us is to take this powerful movement and change policy.”

James Pfeiffer

The essential health infrastructures of developing countries are in terrible shape, Pfeiffer said. “The innovation we need is to change structures to provide adequate resources to the front lines.”
The number of healthcare workers to treat patients in many developing countries is far below the standards set by the World Health Organization, Pfeiffer noted. “It’s very frustrating not to have resources.”

Pfeiffer alleges that the current global economic structure actually transfers money from Africa back to the developed world. As poor countries repay debt to wealthy countries, “more funding leaves Africa than goes into it,” he said. He also addressed the issue of “phantom aid” a phenomenon in which funding is designated for a certain population, but never reaches those who need it most. Pfeiffer estimates 60 to 80 percent of aid dollars may be phantom aid.

Foreign aid also leads to “brain drain” in developing countries, when a country’s best health workers leave to work for a non-governmental organization that can offer higher salaries.

Pfeiffer cited the Occupy Nigeria strike that began early in 2012 to protest a cut in fuel subsidies. “The innovation we need is not technical, but social. We need to challenge the status quo.”

Johanna Crane

Crane described the “new scramble for Africa,” where institutions in the developed world compete with each other for research sites in Africa. “The popularity of the study of global health has skyrocketed,” Crane says, noting the proliferation of university global health programs over the last 10 years. She expressed concerns that “global health may be a way for North American universities to brand themselves” without actually benefitting the host nation.

Crane also discussed the paradox of global health. “Global poverty and inequality makes (university) global health programs possible,” she said. “Global health wants to do the right thing and often does,” she said. “However, the inequalities also present valuable opportunities. We can’t treat foreign countries as fodder for research.”

Clarence Spigner

Spigner discussed the four factors that influence well-being: environment, genetics, medical services and lifestyle. “The U.S. spends 17 percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare,” he said. “But we still have not figured out how to do things better.” Referring to comments by other panelists regarding wealth and inequality, Spigner said “It’s a very troubling trajectory. “We can’t be serious about global health unless we reverse this trend.”

Spigner agreed that the Occupy movement is a “step in the right direction.” He challenged students to take up the cause of global inequality. “Students made the difference in civil rights,” he noted. “Students are supposed to raise hell and change things.”

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