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Blog: How to tackle public health challenges

Representative image. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

India Nov 30, 2018, 03.20 PM (IST) Written By: Abigail Smith

Before my AIF Clinton Fellowship position at Bempu Health, a public health start-up based in Bangalore that uses technological solutions to save newborn lives, my public health experiences had occurred in more “typical” settings. I’d held internships at the state health department in Wisconsin and at the Public Health Foundation of India in Gurgaon, where I worked mostly with individuals with public health or clinical degrees. 

After college, in my role with AmeriCorps, which is a US government-funded civil service programme, I was surrounded by doctors, nurses and other clinical staff as I worked with patients on health education regarding specific risk factors. Most of my classmates and former colleagues working in public health have undergraduate or Master’s degrees in public health, so I saw the path to working in public health as largely defined by this specific type of background or degree programme. 

However, my last year as an AIF Clinton Fellow in the field changed this perception. From my first few weeks at Bempu Health, my notion of what a career in public health looked like was radically shaken up. The Bempu team includes engineers, designers, and finance and production specialists in addition to people with public health-specific backgrounds. On the various projects, I’ve worked on, including launching clinical studies through the Bempu research award, working on clinical study publication, writing grant applications, managing social media, and more, I’ve engaged with colleagues who work on all sides of the company. 

This has offered me perspective on just how diverse and interdisciplinary the public work we’re doing, all centred around improving maternal and child health really is. I’ve also come to understand why this so important. 

I’ve observed that it has been absolutely necessary, for my projects to be effective, to work with individuals from every team. To design a clinical protocol for a study on a new Bempu product that works to detect and resolve neonatal apneas, I met with the engineering team to better understand how the device works and what modifications can be made for the purposes of a study. I worked extensively with our clinical advisor, a neonatologist, to ensure the study was designed appropriately to be able to obtain clinically relevant information. I spoke with our on-the-ground research coordinator, who best understands the day-to-day workings of the study hospital and what is feasible in that particular setting with the available resources. 

I reviewed the draft with my colleagues on the public health team, who were able to provide suggestions and input based on their own experiences with clinical research. To make sure there was a prototype ready to bring to the hospital when meeting with the study investigator about the proposal, I coordinated with members of Bempu’s production team. Through this project and others, I’ve worked here, I’ve witnessed how essential inputs from team members with different backgrounds and expertise are in making public health interventions as effective as possible. 

For a public health start-up, where creative minds are working every day to come up with ways to address the maternal and child health challenges that exist in India and other low- and middle-income countries, having a well-rounded, interdisciplinary team is crucial for understanding all aspects of the problem and how to develop a solution that works. 

My conversations with members of Bempu’s engineering, design, and production teams - fields I previously wouldn’t have typically seen as particularly related or relevant to public health - have offered some of the most meaningful insight I’ve gained this past year on India’s public health challenges and how a wide range of work can contribute to solving them. Understanding more about these fields has been tremendously helpful, as I hadn’t previously been exposed much to engineering, design, and production. 

Seeing the value of interdisciplinary work in public health has been one of my most important takeaways from my time in India, and I will strive to continue to approach public health through an interdisciplinary lens moving forward. 

(A previous version of this article was originally published by the American India Foundation)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Abigail Smith

Abigail served as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Bempu Health in Bangalore in 2017-18.  

Story highlights

For a public health start-up having a well-rounded, interdisciplinary team is crucial for understanding all aspects of the problem and how to develop a solution that works.