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What is global health?

A doctoral student’s perspective

Picture of Susanna Park, a global health PhD student

When I tell people that I’m obtaining my doctoral degree in public health with a global health concentration, I often get a puzzled look. “What does global health even mean?”

I care deeply about the field and while I can spend most of my time talking about it, there are three main points that I want people to know about global health:

What does global health mean?

Global health is a field that aims to improve the health of communities through evidence-based research and local empowerment. We are living in a world where our individual activity is no longer isolated to our immediate communities or geographic borders. The factors that impact our health are not bound by these borders and everything we do in global health operates under this assumption.

The generation of scholars who are actually obtaining degrees in global health is rather recent and this field continues to develop with collaboration from people with various backgrounds.

Collaboration is at the heart of global health because the human experience cannot be explained in one dimension. Anthropology, medicine, sociology, kinesiology, economics, politics, history, etc. all play a role in defining the health of an individual.

What does it mean to be a global health researcher?

For me, being a global health researcher means to first, and foremost, recognize local knowledge. Global health has its roots in colonial medicine, in that European colonizers exploited land and Indigenous knowledge for their own benefit. This “exchange” of information evolved into a field called international health, where high-income countries provided health aid to lower-income countries.

While this may or may not have been beneficial, it was also paternalistic in nature because it did not focus on empowering local capacities. This is all the more reason why it is crucial for global health practitioners to collaborate with local communities rather than going in and imposing change.

Every human has their own story and lived experience. As a global health researcher, I cannot impose my reality on to someone else who has had a distinct lived experience from mine. Respecting communities includes recognizing that being a researcher does not entitle me to having a position in the community. Rather, trust is earned and allyship is awarded.

So, you study poor countries and try to make them healthier?

This is a common misconception in global health. My role is not to save but to understand. Global health researchers are tasked to use our skills to empower others, not go in and save communities from “poverty” and “horrible health conditions.” I put these in quotes because sometimes, what we assume a community needs may not be what they actually need. When researchers enter a space with the goal to understand, there is more room for collaboration to occur.

Most importantly, as individuals with the ability to gather information and tell important stories, we must honor the people behind our data and stay true to the voices that represent our data. When we center the voices of local community members in our research, we can truly help implement programs or interventions that benefit the people’s health.

Global health is an ever-changing field and I am so thankful to be part of something that I can evolve with in hopes of becoming the best researcher I can be.

Susanna Park is pursuing a PhD in public health with a global health concentration from Oregon States University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Susanna has an interest in conflict and health, Indigenous health and health disparities research. She hopes to study how current data on violence against Indigenous women are being gathered and used to provide culturally appropriate and quality services to Native peoples.

Susanna also has a passion for health science communication and is currently a co-host on a podcast called Global Caveat with global health epidemiologist, Diana Klatt.

 

If you would like to contribute a student guest post to Synergies, send a brief story summary to hanna.knowles@oregonstate.edu.