How students can help improve global health

22 October 2010

Education, information and pragmatism. These were the requirements – amongst others – named by global health panellists on 14 October for students aspiring to make a difference in this sphere.

Below Mandy Shoa and Cam Wratten, both of UCL Friends of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), summarise the inspirational speakers’ advice, given at ‘What can students do for Global Health?’

The event was organised by UCLU Medsin and UCLU Friends of MSF, supported by a UCL Friends’ Trust grant, and in association with the UCL Institute for Global Health, the Global Development Initiative and UCLU Engineers Without Borders.


“This difficult question must be considered by initially asking: What is global health?’ The rise of globalisation with internet and global finance means that events in one part of the world are bound to have a ripple effect in other parts, therefore global health means health with global rather than national borders, involving global health policies and foreign policy.

So, as students, what can we actually do? According to the panel, our roles can be summarised as:

  • advocacy – for example, campaigning for TB, HIV, maternal health, chronic diseases
  • mobilising evidence – getting involved in projects, and gathering and analysing evidence
  • policy – for example, the student who carried out a critical analysis of the Gates Foundation which was published in The Lancet
  • employment/careers – building portfolios for a career in global health
  • capacity building and partnerships – for example, a senior house officer went to Sierra Leone during his elective and set up a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with his friends, which is still running six years later.

Each of the panellists also provided specific, inspirational advice about what students can do in aid of global health, which is outlined below.

Click on the player below to see a slideshow of images from the event. Photographs by Teddy Hla of UCLU PhotoSoc


Dr Sidney Wong (MSF UK Board of Directors)

Dr Sidney Wong

“As students, we’re blessed with time and passion. There are plenty of prospects for advocacy in colleges and universities. Even if you can’t work at an NGO due to the requirement of certain skill sets, you can find opportunities closer to home. You need to be creative and enthusiastic! For example, there are several ways to get closer to a career in international health:

  • take a year out to take a masters in International Diplomacy/International Health
  • internships in global health teams or global exchange
  • travel to gain an insight into different cultures
  • learn a new language
  • develop key skills such as management, leadership and organisation.”

Nina Neeteson (Article25, a construction NGO)

“Students are eager to apply their skills to global health and sometimes feel there aren’t any concrete ways of doing this. You just have to be intuitive and show initiative – the field is fluid and you can potentially create your own job and expertise. Bringing global health issues to the surface involves convincing the wider community that their skills are relevant to global health. There are many different disciplines with different applications related to health – you just have to find the one that suits you.”

Nina studied political science and international development, and then pushed to run education programmes for architectural students in global health. Nina works for Article 25, which provides architectural support for NGOs, and was involved in a bid to the Wellcome Trust to examine heat structures in buildings in places such as Delhi where temperatures fluctuate greatly, in order to maximise ventilation in summer and manage heat loss – a great example of thinking outside the box about implications for global health.

Professor David Heymann (World Health Organisation)

  • “Be at the right place at the right time, and look for opportunities, such as World Health Organisation (WHO) internships
  • Be able to say ‘yes’
  • Plan: ask yourself ‘Where do I want to be in 5 years time?’
  • Pay your dues: learn about what is going on in the world, build your skill set appropriately, get the right qualifications, experience the world, etc.
  • Joining activist movements is one of the most powerful and important things you can do: student activities in the past were key in adding to the impetus that led to the setting up of the Global Fund.”

Jeffrey Sachs stated that if a country wants to develop, it has to have a healthy population – this message was taken to advisors of senior members of G8 and heads of organisations.

In order to convince these agencies to buy drugs for other diseases, a macroeconomic commission for health was developed. Senior advisors at WHO organised mass campaigns. These were primarily led by students, particularly medical students, hundreds of whom assembled from all over the world before returning to their respective countries to create campaigns. The students’ activities caught media attention, and their advocacy put pressure on politicians and governments to change health policy.

Johnny Currie (Former president of UK Medsin)

“Universities are institutions of knowledge and rightly involve students in campaigns. To successfully get involved, you must:

  • get your story straight – you must be informed about current and past issues, have facts, and be able to talk to people about them. Discover your personal story: if you know the exact reasons why you want to get involved, you will be able to influence and inspire others. Exploit your emotional connection with these issues – why do you want to make a difference?
  • surround yourself with like-minded people – one person is an individual, two is a group and three is public opinion. You cannot do things alone; hunting in packs through forums and networks is vital.
  • have a strategy – be informed and engaged. Medsin has the motto ‘education, action, advocacy’, all of which are necessary to make a change. In creating your strategy, make sure to use your head, heart and hands, that is, be informed, be passionate and get involved.
  • most importantly, be radical and revolutionary! Don’t look back and regret never doing anything.”

To have any influence on global health as students, we need to be educated, informed and pragmatic: we can put pressure on governments to influence change, and be proactive now with respect to our own careers. We are at UCL, in London, surrounded by diverse and dynamic global health researchers, speakers, and activists. Let’s use this to our advantage.


Related news

Review: Professor Barry Marshall’s 2010 Clinical Prize Lecture