Opinion: How can MPH programs better prepare global health leaders?

Photo by: Tim Bish on Unsplash 

Global health is a complex field where several sciences and disciplines converge, mainly where international development, public health, and medical care delivery and health care management meet. Global health professionals need to know the sciences in each of these fields, and where they, as global health experts in whichever field they specialize, fit. They also need to know how to use this knowledge and make an impact to succeed in the rapidly changing world of global health.

Many global health professionals come from a health care profession. That is, they are doctors or nurses, and that makes it easier for them to know where they fit and how to help other health professionals in a developing country. They know how health systems work, or should work, because they have experience providing quality health care. On the other hand, global health professionals that come from other fields — such as communications, economics, engineering, among others — and who have earned a master’s degree or certificate in global or public health, may find it hard to figure out where they can help improve the health status of a population and how they can succeed in their career. Both professionals, with health and non-health backgrounds, want to save lives, and they can do it if they have the right skills. It is sad to see so many MPHers graduate and struggle to find their place in global health.

MPH and related programs need to prepare future global health professionals to have a thorough knowledge of the field and a number of skills that will empower them to lead a successful career. The definition of success varies from person to person, but I will define it as objective evidence of having helped improve the quality of life and health status of a group or community.

There are three things MPH or doctorate of public health programs must do to better prepare global health leaders and help them achieve success.

1. Develop a career success plan

First, these programs need to help the students develop a career success plan that charts how they will get started and manage their careers while still in school and afterward. Developing a career plan that empowers global health professionals to develop and lead careers is not usually part of an MPH program, and sadly many global health professionals graduate without one and struggle to find entry level jobs. Career plans need to be specific to the skills and strengths of each person because we are all different and can contribute to global health in various ways. Look for an MPH program that will help you develop a career plan and get started in your career. Don’t wait until you graduate to figure out what you will do.

2. Emphasize management and coaching skills

Second, global health leaders need to be effective managers and coaches. Global health professionals can help others to deliver better quality of care, implement improved and more efficient health care delivery procedures, and solve problems that prevent quality health care delivery. However, those without a health care background can play a very important role if they know where they fit in the overall global health architecture and are prepared to be effective managers and coaches.

Management skills are necessary for global health professionals to effectively implement global health projects, and coaching skills are necessary to coach their counterparts to implement and scale up the improvements these projects introduce. In this way, they help counterparts improve how public health programs work, how health facilities work, and how local health organizations, such as research and training institutions, private health sectors, and local civil society and nongovernmental organizations, work. Look for an MPH program that has a sound management component with courses in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, health systems management, public health program management, and courses in coaching. That is, not just one course but a number of courses that actually teach you the skills and tools needed to coach professionals from various backgrounds to change and improve their performance.

3. Systems thinking

Last but not least, global health professionals need systems thinking to be able to achieve sustainable impacts. It is not enough to increase the number of people who benefit from a global health intervention such as the use of mosquito nets, or the children who receive a dose of polio vaccine. Global health is about ensuring that the health system is able to keep providing malaria prevention services and routine immunizations after your malaria or child health project ends. You need to know how to assess and intervene in a health system to achieve lasting results, so look for an MPH program with a solid curriculum on health systems and how they work or should work.

These three are the pillars you will need to succeed in making a big impact. Along with the basic sciences of public health, international development, human rights and health care management, having a career plan, management and coaching skills, and systems thinking make for an MPH program that will empower you to become the global health leader of the future who will really contribute to achieving health for all. Don’t settle for less.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree, and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), Duke Center for International Development (DCID) at Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, the Online Master of Public Health (MPH) at George Washington University, and the MPA/ID Program at Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Elvira Beracochea

    Elvira Beracochea, M.D., MPH, is a leader in improving aid effectiveness in global health and health system strengthening. She is the founder and president of Realizing Global Health, Inc., a woman-owned small business consulting firm that assists clients to improve health systems and the delivery of health care services in developing countries.