Happy 100th, Harvard School of Public Health

Nov 1, 2013, 11:33 AM

The celebrations earlier this month for the Harvard School of Public Health’s centennial included galas, world leaders and a $450 million fundraising campaign, about a third of which is already completed.

But the most poignant moments may have been watching former graduates, many who are now in key health leadership positions across the globe, in quiet conversations with current students, answering questions about how to get the most out of their time in Boston to help improve population health when they hit the field. Kelechi Ohiri, MD, senior adviser to the Nigerian Ministry of Health, who got his Harvard Master of Public Health eleven years ago, sat out some of the formal Centennial lunch to speak to a current student from his country whose excitement at meeting Nigeria’s top health official bubbled over.

“Meeting him makes me believe I’ll be able to use what I’m learning to help make a difference at home,” she said.

Ohiri said that a critical focus should be “networking to improve skills and create contacts,” which he said is often underutilized by students of public health, and contrasted that with networking as an “explicit goal” of the Harvard MBA program.

Several graduates who are now world health leaders convened for a panel discussion moderated by Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg (who received all his degrees, including his MD, from Harvard) about their experiences in the field of public health. In addition to Ohiri, participants included:

  • Gro Harlem Brundtland, MPH ’65, the former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization
  • Suraya Dalil, MD, MPH ’05, the Minister of Public Health of Afghanistan
  • Howard Koh, MD, a former professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and currently the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health
  • Pradit Sintavanarong, MD, MPH ’89, the Minister of Public Health of Thailan

Brundtland said she learned during her time at the WHO that many public health experts believe that it is dangerous to work with the private sector, an issue she said she dismissed during the time that health experts worked with industry in developing medications for HIV.

When asked “What do you wish you had understood a little earlier” by Fineberg, Koh replied “to be steadfast in your commission to mission, but flexible in how you implement it.”

Ohiri said he has learned the value of small wins: (“They keep you going and help to combat cynicism”), while Sintavanarong said he had found that often in public health “we fail to maintain the momentum we need to position public health more prominently.”

Several panelists talked about issues that must be added to the public health agenda. For Dalil, those include poverty, humanitarian crises, government accountability, distribution of resources, peace development, women’s empowerment and partnerships to address poverty.

Fineberg ended the session by asking the health directors how they came to make public health their careers. They all had interesting answers, mostly issues they encountered during medical training. But during the question and answer period, a student asked Fineberg that question and his reply silenced the house. Fineberg said that he was a head start volunteer the summer before he started college and on the first day he and another volunteer, as instructed, put out a few crackers as a snack for the little kids coming to the program. The kids ate so fast and so much, that the next couple of days he spent his own money at a grocery store to be sure they’d have enough snacks to go around.

“But on the third day I realized it wasn’t that the kids liked the treat, but that many of them were just absolutely hungry. And that’s when I decided to join the field.”

This year the theme of the American Public Health Association meeting, which begins on Saturday, is “Think Global, Act Local.” NewPublicHealth will be on the ground at the APHA Annual Meeting, with speaker and thought-leader interviews, video perspective pieces and updates from sessions, with a focus on what it takes to build a culture of health. Follow our coverage here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.