Letter to the Editor: Expanding Northwestern’s Vision for Global Health

Last week, Northwestern announced the opening of its new Institute for Global Health, with the stated mission of “improving health in middle- and lower-income countries around the world.” While we enthusiastically support Northwestern’s decision to deepen its commitment to global health, we believe that for the Institute to achieve its mission, it must broaden the scope of its research agenda to better reflect the multidisciplinary nature of global health itself.

Currently, the Institute primarily supports biomedical research, and its leadership has not expressed any intention of collaborating with the social sciences or humanities in a research capacity. At face value, these priorities may make sense to you. After all, health is predominantly a medical issue, right?

As global health students, we recognize that global health does not fall under the purview of medicine alone. Global health is commonly defined as “an area for study, research, and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving health equity for all people worldwide.” With such a far-reaching scope, the field of global health is inherently multidisciplinary because our health and the health of others around the world are not shaped solely by the field of medicine. Socioeconomic status, access to healthy food and water, political turmoil and violence and other social and environmental factors also significantly impact health outcomes worldwide.

For these reasons, we hope Northwestern leaders will push beyond the Institute’s decision to structure its objectives around the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). At their conception, the MDGs were revolutionary because they sought to reach an agreement on a global scale about how to tackle global health issues. However, a major fault in the MDGs is that the goals did not actively take into consideration the impacts that social issues have in shaping health outcomes. Rather, they presented poverty, health disparities, gender inequity, and other critical challenges as independent rather than interrelated issues.

Furthermore, the MDGs are outdated, as the international community departed from the MDGs to rally around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016. The switch from MDGs to SDGs was in part an acknowledgment of the importance of social and historical contexts and the unsustainability of short-term, exclusively medical or “vertical” public health interventions.

Countless research findings have demonstrated the reductionist nature of the MDGs and the often unintended but detrimental effects of these initiatives. Adopting a more multidisciplinary approach will enable the Institute to carry out a research agenda that better aligns with existing global health knowledge and the new priorities of the international community.

For the Institute to construct a more well-rounded vision for global health and accomplish its mission, it must support and build upon the relevant and important work that economists, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists and other scholars are carrying out across the University. For example, the faculty of the undergraduate Global Health Studies Program are researching water insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, international clinical volunteerism in Tanzania, psychological trauma in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and other issues lying at the intersection of health and the social sciences. Northwestern’s Global Poverty Research Lab and Buffett Institute for Global Studies, as well as other programs at the university, offer further opportunities for academic and philanthropic collaboration.

Moreover, a more multidisciplinary approach is necessary for the Institute’s leadership to achieve their goal of creating a “top-ranked international institute”. Other leading global health organizations established by our peer institutions, such as the Global Health Institutes at Harvard and Duke, house and support the research of faculty across the STEM fields, social sciences and humanities. The Harvard Global Health Institute’s mission statement is quite clear: “We believe that solutions that will move the dial (in reducing global health disparities) draw from within and beyond the medicine and public health spheres to encompass design, law, policy, and business.”

In addition, having a more integrated institute that incorporates the perspectives of humanities and social science scholars who have invested their careers in the global health field along with medical professionals can enhance the undergraduate experience. A truly multidisciplinary institute can bridge the gap between the Chicago and Evanston campuses, offering opportunities for medical students and undergraduates, who are the world’s future researchers, doctors and leaders, to connect and collaborate with current professionals on challenging global health problems.

The establishment of the Institute for Global Health is an important step in the right direction. The research that the Institute currently supports will surely play an important role in improving the health of disadvantaged and marginalized populations. That being said, every stakeholder in the new Institute stands to benefit from a more multidisciplinary approach to global health. Professors will have access to greater opportunities for scholarly collaboration and support for their research. The Institute’s beneficiaries in developing countries will benefit from a more comprehensive strategy to improve health outcomes. The Institute’s leadership will be able to align the structure of the organization with other leading academic global health institutions. Lastly, both undergraduate and graduate students will be able to participate in more robust learning and research experiences.

A true multidisciplinary approach to global health will better serve the world’s vulnerable populations and the Northwestern community.

— Zach Hennenfent ‘19, Grishma Reddy ‘19, Nihmotallahi Adebayo ‘19