Christopher J. Elias, MD, MPH

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, 1988-1990

    • January 24, 2013

Position: President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Former President of PATH, an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health of people around the world through advancing technologies, strengthening systems and encouraging healthy behaviors.

Clinical Scholar: 1988–1990, University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Seattle, Wash.

Research Project: "Health Behaviors of Older Homeless Men in Seattle"

Clinical Specialty: Internal Medicine

The health care problems of displaced and underserved populations are remarkably similar, whether one is a refugee in Asia or a homeless person on the streets of a major U.S. city.

Christopher J. Elias, MD, reached this sobering conclusion after spending two years working in a refugee camp along the Cambodia-Thailand border and then undertaking a study of homeless men in Seattle.

"It was a pretty intense two years, working with people who were literally displaced from their homes and their country," recalls Elias. Returning to the United States in 1988 to become a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, Elias found that displacement, in the form of homelessness, was a pressing issue here too. Elias wanted to understand how social and economic disenfranchisement affected the health and health care-seeking behavior of homeless people.

Elias spent half a day a week providing clinical services to homeless patients—the majority of them men—at the Pioneer Square Clinic in downtown Seattle. As part of an ethnographic research study, Elias discovered the men's decisions about health care were complex indeed.

"It was informed by a lot of other problems in their lives," Elias recalls. "Mental health problems, substance abuse and also how they were treated. One man had walked all the way into downtown Seattle and had walked past two other places because he wasn't treated well."

Armed with newly acquired skills in qualitative research methods and a master's degree in public health, Elias left the Scholars program with even more of a zeal for working in international health.

"I don't want to make a direct metaphor," he says, "but the nexus of poverty and health, which I was addressing in homelessness in Seattle, is not dissimilar to some of the poorest portions of the world."

Today, Elias is president of PATH, an international, nonprofit organization that helps communities around the world break longstanding cycles of poor health. In 2005, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named Elias Social Entrepreneur of the Year for the United States, an award that recognizes innovation and pragmatism in pursuit of solutions to global health problems.

Now a recognized leader in international health, Elias credits the Clinical Scholars program with giving him a space for reflection and learning at a very important juncture in his life.

"The best thing I learned was the skill of thinking broadly," he says, "of bringing in diverse opinions and disciplines when thinking about complex health problems. That broader framework was not only an influence, but determinative, of my future career choices."

Christopher J. Elias, MD, MPH

Christopher J. Elias, MD, MPH
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, 1988-1990