On November 17, 2014, the Faculty of Health launched its newest degree program, the Global Health BA/BSc, as part of a new Global Health Seminar Series starting with the keynote address “Health without Boundaries: Rethinking Global Health” by guest speakers Dr. Julio Frenk, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and former minister of health for Mexico and his wife Dr. Felicia Marie Knaul, Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative. The event in the Harry Crowe room, Atkinson College, included the first class of Global Health students, as well as faculty and staff.
The new degree program is the first undergraduate degree program in Canada to combine a core body of knowledge in global health, including courses in anatomy and physiology, global health research methods and measurement, chronic diseases and care, leadership, and the social determinants of health, along with the option for students to specialize in one of four areas: Global E-Health; Global Health Policy, Management and Systems; Global Health Promotion and Disease Prevention; and Global Health and the Environment.
“The Global Health degree program unleashes the power for health and wellness locally and globally,” said York’s Faculty of Health Dean Harvey Skinner. “You are the pioneers,” said Skinner, addressing the first class of Global Health students in the room. “We want our graduates to be Agents of Change, leading the transformation, especially in disadvantaged communities, both here and around the world.”
“It is a great privilege to bear witness to this innovative program and inaugural class,” said Dr. Julio Frenk in his opening remarks. Dr. Frenk emphasized the importance and growing awareness of health vis-à-vis broader issues including security, human rights and economic growth. He stressed that there is no distinction between local and global health, that global health is not foreign health but rather an understanding of our interconnectedness and interdependence: “health unites everyone and speaks to our common humanity.”
Dr. Frenk recalled his experience as minister of health for Mexico when he introduced an ambitious new law in January 2004 to provide health insurance for the treatment of widespread diseases including childhood Leukemia, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS. Prior to the new law, only half of Mexico’s 100 million people had any kind of health coverage. The impetus for the new law was to improve both health outcomes and reduce health inequities. As an example of the latter, he cited the 90 per cent survival rate for acute Leukemia in Canada versus the 10 per cent survival rate for those in the 24 poorest countries in the world. Every year, 100 million people around the world are driven into catastrophic poverty because they or a family member become sick and they have to sell everything they have to pay for health care. In Mexico, prior to the introduction of health insurance, 30 per cent of families abandoned treatment because they ran out of money, whereas today that figure stands at three per cent.
“This is a Global Health moment,” said Dr. Frenk in his concluding remarks to the first class of students, “a room full of young, energetic, idealistic people.”
Dr. Felicia Marie Knaul, Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School, and Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, spoke of her professional work as well as her personal experience as a cancer survivor. Her PhD in economics at Harvard focused on street children and child labour in Columbia, and her research underlined the importance of combining evidence and advocacy, as advocacy without evidence leads to poor decision making.
Her work in Mexico included setting up a program that put formal schools in hospitals to serve children with chronic diseases such as cancer or those on dialysis waiting for transplants.
It was her experience as a breast cancer patient and survivor in Mexico, however, that underscored to her the health inequities for women who had to travel to the larger urban hospitals as palliative care and pain control were not available in rural and remote hospitals. She also learned through her own experience the journey of the patient, partner, family and health system with a chronic disease and she recounted that experience in her book Tómatelo a pecho (Beauty without the Breast). She established a foundation of the same name to support women with breast cancer and piloted a program that took chemotherapy to women in remote areas.
Following their remarks, Dr. Frenk and Dr. Knaul remained for a lively question and answer session as it was obvious that they had inspired the first class of Global Health students.