Unite for Sight’s Global Health and Innovation Conference 2014

Over the weekend, Elizabeth Lilly (GHF ’16) attended the Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Annual Conference held at Yale University. She has summarized her experience in the post below:

Elizabeth Lilly (GHF '16) attending the Unite for Sight Global Health Conference at Yale University,

Elizabeth Lilly (GHF ’16) attending the Unite for Sight Global Health Conference at Yale University,

Over the weekend, I had the great fortune of attending the 11th annual Unite For Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference. The schedule was packed full of intelligent, innovative, and passionate speakers, and I found my greatest challenge to be choosing which sessions to attend! In many cases, I wished that I could be in two places at once. 

Held at Yale University, the conference is hosted by Unite For Sight, a non-profit organization based in New Haven that is committed to providing eye care to the world’s neediest. The first morning began with three keynote addresses, all with rather similar subject matter: nutrition and the environment. The first speaker, Dr. Arlene Blum, gave a presentation about the dangers of hidden chemicals in everyday objects. Paralleled with the story of her research was a fascinating tale of her passion for mountain climbing, which even took her to the summit of Mount Everest. Dr. Blum’s talk was followed by those of Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farms, and Michael Moss, a reporter for the New York Times. Both discussed nutrition in America: Hirshberg presented the rural side to food production, which unfortunately involves a staggering amount of pesticides, and cited his own company’s continued efforts to stay green and organic; Moss, however, presented the more industrial side of food production, drawing largely from his book “Salt, Sugar, Fat.”
 
Later that morning, I attended a presentation by Emmanuel Aklamati, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, about the determinants of health-seeking behaviors of women in northern Ghana. When the ’16s went to Haiti last summer, many of us found that the villagers had access to basic medications and clinical care but were simply unable or unwilling to seek them out. The findings of the study, as presented on Saturday, were not surprising. Women living in urban areas with greater education, higher socio-economic status, and a morally supportive husband were far more likely to seek out health services than women in dissimilar situations. However, Mr. Aklamati made sure to note that the prevalence of health-seeking behavior was not, as the study could find, related to specific health outcomes.
 
I was absolutely thrilled to be able to attend a session after lunch in which two speakers were scheduled to present about my area of study for this year’s symposium: cervical cancer. As the two women (Lauren Ditzian and Susan Howe) began to speak, my pen absolutely flew across the paper, and I was nearly shaking with excitement. They were discussing the very topic which I was researching! The first presentation focused specifically on screening in Latin America and the Caribbean using a method called careHPV. What makes this method so effective in the developing world is the relative ease with which the test is administered – it requires little lab training for healthcare workers and can even be used in the context of self-sampling. If a woman tested positive for HPV, she could be treated immediately with VIAA or referred for a colposcopy. The former option was shown to be far more effective. VIAA, or visual inspection with acetic acid, is a surprisingly simple method of cervical cancer screening in which the cervix is swabbed with vinegar. Cancerous lesions, upon contact with vinegar, will become visible to a well-trained eye. Furthermore, the quickness and ease of this process allows for the woman to be treated with cryotherapy in the same appointment and generally to be sent home within hours. I left the room tremendously inspired and will be contacting the speakers soon!
 
Later in the evening, I attended a Careers in Global Health Panel, which was led by several admirable figures in the global health arena today. They created a comfortable, easygoing environment in which laughter and ideas flowed equally freely. I felt especially lucky to be gaining this perspective at such a young age, when truly my whole career lies before me. The panelists hammered home several of the cliches of life advice, including modeling a career around one’s passion and not allowing oneself to get too caught up in planning the future. In general, they urged their audience to develop skill sets that could be applied to a wide variety of careers and pursuits. Most repeated frequently that they never envisioned their careers taking them into global health, but that what had allowed for their success were their skill sets that translated well across career paths.
 
One of the panelists urged the audience members only to travel if they believed they would make a difference in the community to which they were traveling. Otherwise, they were wasting their organization’s time and money, not to mention the time of the local people. A common theme throughout the weekend was one which the Global Health Fellows have encountered before: “What impact are you going to make? How are you going to make the world a better place? If you don’t know, you need to.”
Jeffrey Sachs' Keynote Address at the Unite for Sight Global Health Conference 2014.

Jeffrey Sachs’ Keynote Address at the Unite for Sight Global Health Conference 2014.

The second day opened with three more keynote addresses, this time from Jeffrey and Sonia Sachs and Seth Godin. Jeffrey Sachs gave a rather sobering talk about the future of the planet, specifically with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals, which will naturally follow the up-to-2015 Millennium Development Goals. He ensured that the first SDG will be to eradicate extreme poverty and suggested that the rate of extreme poverty will hover around and below 5% by 2030. Dr. Sachs also introduced the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN initiative that recommends certain SDGs such as the following: promoting sustainable growth and jobs, achieving universal secondary education, social inclusion, universal health care, et cetera. His wife, Sonia Sachs, gave a much more academic presentation, focusing on the 1,000 day period between pregnancy and a child reaching two years of age. These days, she urged, are the most crucial in establishing a child’s permanent health. If the child is well nourished during this time, he or she will lead a much more successful life in adulthood. 
 
The third and final keynote speaker of the morning and the weekend was Seth Godin, an author/entrepreneur who talked about appealing to the “weird” ends of society. If you want to create change, he argued, your ideas will most likely resonate with the extreme ends of society more than they will with the conformist clump in the middle. And in order to create change, there must be a leap — granted, a dangerous one, but an important one nonetheless. He implored his audience to take a leap into the void, because from that moment of almost paralyzing vulnerability, our greatest ideas arise. Mr. Godin left us with one question: “You are all going to succeed, but are you going to matter?”
 
It turned out, however, that this stimulating morning was only a warm-up for the day to come. From Shubert Theater, site of the keynotes, we travelled to a small, sunlit room in one of Yale’s beautiful castles, where we participated in a workshop entitled “Simple Interventions: Driving Sustainable Impact via Effective Partnerships, Talent, and Local Capacity Building,” led by GE’s Chief Medical Officer David Barash. All participants were asked to write solution proposals for the following problem statement: “What steps can be taken to improve access to care globally?” We actually ran out of time to discuss the solutions, but no one was too disappointed — we had an absolutely fascinating Q&A. The brainpower on the panel was almost palpable. It included Dr. Rachel T. Moresky of Columbia University’s sidHARTe program, Dr. Sanjeev Arora of the University of New Mexico and Project ECHO, and Mr. Richard Lamporte of Jhpiego. Both I and my mother, who accompanied me on this trip, left with a strange but exciting intellectual energy.
 
After lunch, we attended another panel, this time focusing on healthcare in the United States. Dr. Elizabeth Bradley, the director of the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, presented about the difference between “health” and “healthcare.” She broke down “health” into three distinct categories: 20% genetics, 20% healthcare, and 60% a variety of social, behavioral, and environmental factors. Despite healthcare’s relatively small role in determining overall health, a disproportionate amount of money is spent on healthcare every year. Dr. Bradley linked this disconnect between need and spending to the United States’ low markings in maternal mortality among developed countries. The true indicator of a successful, “healthy” country is a high ratio of social services spending to healthcare spending. Not surprisingly, traditional list-toppers Sweden, France, and Italy come in at the top of this social-healthcare spending ranking as well. The United States comes in dead last among OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of 34 developed countries that originated in the years after World War II to help administer the Marshall Plan) countries.
 
Finally, to close out our weekend, we attended the first and only session focusing on NCDs in global health. Dr. Gene Kwan of Partners in Health presented on PIH’s efforts to curb cardiovascular disease in Rwanda and Haiti, especially with the recent opening of the Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais, which the GHF ’16s have now visited twice! It was very exciting to hear more about PIH and the University Hospital continuing to make huge strides in Haiti.
 
Overall, this was one of the most stimulating, inspiring – and, frankly, tiring (but only in the best way!) – weekends of my life. At times, I felt empowered, and at others, I was very cognizant of just how much I had – still have – to learn. I agree with Ms. Massey, however — I can certainly see some Global Health Fellows presenting here in the future! This conference, as well as the global health world in general, is looking for energetic young people to take ownership of this movement. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store not just for our fellows, but for this fast-progressing world! 
Elizabeth Lilly (GHF '16) with Lanch McCormick, Executive Director of Unite for Sight.

Elizabeth Lilly (GHF ’16) with Lanch McCormick, Executive Director of Unite for Sight.

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