Getting the global right in #GlobalHealth
There are many challenges in defining global health, and in such making it approachable, finding addressable problems and within them attainable goals. Current practices state that afterwards we should work on them in a tailor-fit model, measuring impact, projecting sustainability, and reviewing the possibility for replication of this model in other contexts. Easy peacy, right?
Global health often seems so far out of reach that only big players with great resources seem fit to partake in this arena. I digress.
When talking about global health, experience has taught me that distance seems to be an underlying problem. Don’t think of it only in miles or kilometers, or in cultures and language, but also in focus and context. Health is a living and breathing system, always changing and adapting, and the world a moving target. Thus the complexity to define global health, and having a reach to its challenges in this big and often scary world of our days. But as my Congolese friends would say: le monde est petit, mais le Congo il est grand or in English, the world is small but the Congo is big. Leaving aside the nationalistic and euro-centric-challenging backends of this phase, not that they don’t have a point, there is a pearl of wisdom in this saying: the world is indeed small when we think of our connections, but the challenges and opportunities the nature around us still poise are greatly vast, often only within our socio-political boundaries. Distance.
So how can we turn the table around? How can we overcome this natural distance taking advantage of the interconnectivity of our time? The great players seem to have noticed this underlying problem a while ago, but their centralized approach has failed them greatly so far. Having technical specialists sitting in Geneva, Boston, Paris or New York recommending how things should be done in another continent, based on the experience they gained by applying elsewhere the technical training they got not far away from where they are based now seems to project further that underlying distance.
A different approach seems necessary, a more creative, reaching beyond current capabilities. A hack, of sorts, one would argue.
Well, MIT definitively does set the argument in the table when talking about medicine, and seems fitting for the institution that coined and excels the term at hand, hacking. As Ben Yagoda shares in his piece in the New Yorker:
“It was at M.I.T. that ‘hack’ first came to mean fussing with machines. The minutes of an April, 1955, meeting of the Tech Model Railroad Club state that ‘Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.’ The lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, the president of the American Dialect Society, who has been tracking the recent iterations of ‘hack’ and ‘hacker’ for years, told me that the earliest examples share a relatively benign sense of “working on” a tech problem in a different, presumably more creative way than what’s outlined in an instruction manual.”
Hacking medicine seems like an odd statement, but from what I’ve witnessed and learnt, it is a natural pair. An inspiring lecture that Doctor Elazer Edelman offered during the first MIT-Harvard Medical School Healthcare Innovation Bootcamp confirmed the suspicions that I gathered while working with Doctors Without Borders in different countries in Africa and Latin America. Collective innovation, the bone marrow of any hackathon, it’s right at home in medicine and science. I’ve proudly partaken in this process in different countries with brilliant minds.
(Another great talk he offered on the same topic can be found in this TEDMED video.)
This is why I was honored to participate as Mentor in MIT’s Hacking Medicine Grandhack 2019 which took place in Paris, last weekend. More than 190 participants from different countries in the world got together to break down the problems, build up solutions and make better the way we face challenges addressing Cancer, mental and neurological health, and public health.
In international affairs and business, there is a term that has been used since the mid 90’s to refer to the relation between local and global, “reflecting or characterized by both local and global considerations.” Glocal is to me the approach that global health needs to truly impact in the most effective way the challenges human health face in this century. Distance.
By organizing a collective innovation event in a different country with participants from diverse backgrounds and local actors and collectives, MIT Hacking Medicine has achieved to my view a postcard of what global health is and how we should address it. With caregivers, engineers, patients, entrepreneurs, scientists, and above all: people engaged in thinking differently.
I invite you to take distance from current approaches and trends, and appreciate the value of collective innovation. Because to me, the greatness behind this type of events lays beyond machine learning, AI, Apps, Program Management, international guidelines, and academic research. It lays with the commitment of great minds, most of them young, in working together and owning their space as leaders in global health.
Congratulations to all that took part in this hackathon, you have inspired me to continue to break it down, build it up, and make it better.