Interview: Global Health Film-Maker


This week, we continue our PLOS TGH podcasting – as Melbourne-based Global Health enthusiast Lilli Morgan interviews film-maker Lali Houghton on location, as he films a short film for NCDFREE, GlobalRT and UICC in Lima, Peru.


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Wearable. Edible. Huggable. #WIREDHEALTH

This week we hand over to regular blogger Alex Abel – who recently returned from London’s WIRED Health.

Earlier this year, in a blog post for the World Economic Foundation, Jamie Ferguson said:

“The so-called revolution in digital health has been slow moving for many years, more like an undercurrent. But, lately it has become a tide, with all stakeholders fully invested and ready to catch the wave.”

We were certainly riding the face of that wave at London’s WIRED Health.

Main Stage talks took place in the comfortable Brunei Auditorium.

Main Stage talks took place in the comfortable Brunei Auditorium, hosted by editor David Rowan and science editor João Medeiros.

This inaugural event was held at the Royal College of General Practitioners on 29 April, and focused on innovation in the health sector.

Unsurprisingly, how we can collect, analyse, and benefit from our individual health data dominated discussion at both the Main Stage talks hosted by David Rowan, and the parallel Bupa Startup Stage where a range of companies gave 9-minute pitches to a panel of judges.

Sensors and self-monitoring

Maneesh’s wearable counts step, but also notifies him of tube delays. Image via @ManeeshJuneja

Maneesh’s wearable counts step, but also notifies him of tube delays. Image via @ManeeshJuneja

With the vast array of wearable sensors available ( even launched a wearable tech store last month), we can now keep track of every waking (and sleeping) moment of our lives. My friend Jing noted that there seemed to be so many health-tracking devices that he couldn’t quite see the need for all of them. How many, and what kinds of tools, do we really need? But Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit Wearables, more than adequately addressed this common question with a nice analogy:

“I’ve heard people say, oh wearables, that’s a really crowded space. No. That’s like saying in 1997 that the Internet is really crowded because there’s a lot of websites.”

Aside from keeping check on general health, sensors have huge potential to aid the management of chronic disease as people with chronic conditions are already self-managing 8700 hours a year, and only 3 hours a year with their clinician. Andrew Thompson explained that when a patient swallows a Proteus pill, it connects and communicates with their mobile phone, letting them know if they are responding properly to the medication. The sensor in this smart pill is made of silicon, copper, and magnesium – designed to be cheaply and easily embedded into any product. Andrew hopes that ‘digital pills’ will enable patients and doctors to better monitor and treat chronic conditions without the need for endless physical checkups.

From management of complex chronic disease to prediction… Jack Kreindler of the CHHP has been using expensive biosensor technology for a very long time, helping David Walliams swim the length of the Thames recently, but he explained that self-tracking devices used by elite athletes can now be used to predict major health problems, reducing unnecessary hospital admissions.

Jing and I meet Teddy the Guardian, a huggable sensor for children.

Jing and I meet Teddy the Guardian, a huggable sensor for children.

A particular favourite of mine from the Startup Stage was Teddy the Guardian. Certainly the cuddliest sensor tech around, Teddy can measure a child’s temperature, heart rate, and oxygen levels through his ‘smart paws’ in about six seconds. When Teddy’s owner checks their pulse, the bear’s LED heart beats at the same rate, a soothing effect intended to create a bond between child and bear. Teddy data is transmitted in real-time to a mobile app where data is analysed, managed, and downloaded by medical staff and parents.

Apps, wearables, and even edibles empower people to manage their own health and wellness, but we need to aid and guide the take up and use of these devices. As Sir Mark Walport explained, “Science without the social science will not reach its maximum”. The main message of the day can be nicely summed up by the content of one slide, which read: Sensor technology + big data + expert support = success. The challenge becomes how we can best harness our data for personal and global health purposes, and how to secure this expert support when and where it is required.

“We want indiscriminate, continuous, multi-sourced data streams to really realise the global health impact and great potential of digital health.” – Leslie Saxon

And the winner is…

Startup Stage winner was Peter Hames for his novel insomnia-fighting CBT app Sleepio. Their placebo-controlled RCT was published in Sleep in 2012, showing Sleepio users had improved sleep efficiency compared with the online placebo course, and those who continued with usual treatment for insomnia.

Fun fact of the day

Catherine Mohr (Intuitive Surgical) on stage. The dog's nose is a key talking point.

Catherine Mohr (Intuitive Surgical) on stage. The dog’s nose is a key talking point.

A dog’s nose is an amazing diagnostic tool. Dogs can detect ovarian cancer with 90% accuracy. Billy Boyle, Co-founder of the exciting Owlstone Nanotech, told us how this keen chemical analysis has led to their creation of diagnostic sensors that can ‘sniff out’ a range of cancers.

Sharp statistics

One in three couples that have IVF could conceive naturally (Claire Hooper, DuoFertility).

Someone in the world develops Alzheimer’s disease every 6 seconds (Elli Kaplan, Neurotrack Technologies).

Most inspiring statement

“Never under-estimate your ability to make a difference.” – Elli Kaplan

Visit #WIREDHEALTH in 2015

WIRED Health's partner Cisco showcase their Internet of Everything #TOMORROWstartshere

WIRED Health’s partner Cisco showcase their Internet of Everything.

There were twenty-two incredible talks in one day, but every speaker captivated me and made me want to learn more about their work.

After a thoroughly enjoyable day at the RCGP, I was inspired to walk the five miles home, monitoring my heart rate the old fashioned way because I’m a bit short on wearables.

The talks are now available to watch via the WIRED UK YouTube Channel.

WIRED Health will be returning to London next year, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

Many thanks to João Medeiros for inviting me, and curating such a wonderful programme. Congratulations to the entire organising team, and best of luck for 2015!


Alexandra Abel is a graduate from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music. She has a keen interest in both Global Health and Performing Arts. From September, she will be a medical student at Hull York Medical School.

Join her on twitter @alexandraabel

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Supporting population-based approaches to preventing NCDs

For our latest post, we go to Oxford, UK with regular blogger Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe who explains some exciting news in research on Global Health and NCDs.

This week, the British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Prevention in the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford was officially designated as the WHO Collaborating Centre on Population Approaches for NCD Prevention.

Dr Shanthi Mendis, Senior Advisor, NCDs, World Health Organization Head Quarters, explained how this new collaborating centre would contribute to the Global action plan for the prevention and control of NCDs 2013-2020, which set a global target of reducing the premature mortality from NCDs by 25% by 2025. She indicated that the new centre will mainly contribute to the following two objectives of the Action Plan:

  • To reduce exposure to modifiable risk factors for NCDs through creation of health-promoting environments
  • To promote and support national capacity for high quality research and development for prevention and control of NCDs

She said that an interesting question to ask  is why  we need another collaborating centre in a developed country when we see more than 80% of NCD deaths occurring in low and middle income countries (LMICs)? In her answer she pointed out that we have large research and evidence gaps to support the implementation of the most cost effective interventions in high income countries and well as in LMICs and that collaboration with this new centre would enable the sharing of experience and the strengthening of the WHO’s response to the growing problem of NCDs.

Forum at the WHO CC launch. Photo:Prachi Bhatnagar

Forum at the WHO CC launch. Photo:Prachi Bhatnagar

Dr Gauden Galea, Director, Division of NCDs and Life Course in the WHO European office discussed current population based approaches in Europe. Although 50 countries in the region have ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the majority of those countries have struggled to implement important population based interventions fully. Only two countries have successfully introduced pictorial warning on cigarette packages and only three countries have completely banned advertising, promotions and sponsorships.  He demonstrated that similarly, in tackling alcohol and unhealthy diets, countries have shown a higher level of adoption of policies that raise public awareness or that provide information but smaller numbers of countries have implemented interventions such as taxes and other measures to affect food prices and the re-formulation of food products to reduce unhealthy nutrients. He demonstrated how the new centre would continue to work with the WHO on areas such as nutrient profiling, fiscal interventions, marketing of unhealthy food and the use of new data sources for NCD prevention.

Mr Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive, British Heart Foundation (BHF) welcomed this recognition for a research group they have funded for more than 20 years. As the leading funding body for cardiovascular disease research in the UK, he mentioned that the BHF would continue to support cardiovascular disease prevention research to make a greater impact nationally and internationally.

Dr Mike Rayner Director of the new collaborating centre emphasised the importance of population based NCD prevention approaches to create healthy societies rather than just healthy individuals. He argued that the aim of a population based approach should be to shift the distribution of risk factors for NCDs in the population rather than those at greatest risk and to focus on more the distal risk causes of  NCDs such as the price of goods and services. He concluded by saying that a population approach is complementary to an individual/high risk approach but that population based approaches have been neglected.

Picture, left to right: Dr Gauden Galea, Dr Shanthi Mendis, Dr Mike Rayner, Professor Rory Collins, Mr Simon Gillespie.

Picture, left to right: Dr Gauden Galea, Dr Shanthi Mendis, Dr Mike Rayner, Professor Rory Collins, Mr Simon Gillespie. Photo:Andrew Trehearne

This workshop also highlighted wider trends that NCD prevention community should focus on such as global warming, resource depletion and  rising food prices. It was mentioned that the post 2015 development agenda discussions should be used as an opportunity to link NCD prevention with the sustainability agenda. New areas such as the use of social media data and supermarket data for surveillance and prevention of NCDs were also mentioned by speakers during the panel discussion.

When a question was raised about the advice for the next generation it was mentioned that one important role would be to identify research gaps in areas where countries are struggling to implement cost effective interventions and try to improve our understanding on how to implement them. This would require stronger collaboration within and outside the population health disciplines such as economics, anthropology and politics.

The new collaborating centre will be working with the WHO, the BHF and other partners in capacity building by organising workshops and short courses, contributing to WHO’s work in the development of guidelines/manuals on population level NCD prevention, assisting WHO to develop methods for evaluating NCD prevention programmes and providing WHO with statistical analysis and systematic reviews related to population level NCD prevention.

This launch brought NCD prevention experts from leading academic research groups, the World Health Organization and a major non-governmental organisation concerned with NCDs  (the British Heart Foundation) to a single forum. Discussions ranged from generating evidence, using that evidence to developing guidelines, providing technical support to countries, funding actionable research and advocacy by these different organizations. It was evident that bringing these different organizations to the same forum allowed us to understand how these different roles would contribute to unpack the complexity around determinants of NCDs and the importance of working in collaboration, to develop sustainable solutions.

Connect with Kremlin on Twitter via @KremlinKW

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Part 1: Combating Rheumatic Heart Disease in Kenya

Prevention and Control of Rheumatic Heart Disease in Kenya: Issues and Barriers

Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is the most common acquired heart disease in children (common age group is 5 to 15 year olds) in developing countries. Over 15 million people suffer from the condition, resulting in about 233 000 deaths annually. RHD is a chronic heart condition caused by rheumatic fever – whose main symptoms include fever, muscle aches, swollen and painful joints, and in some cases, a red rash. Rheumatic fever is as a result of an untreated strep throat that is caused by bacteria called group A streptococcal (strep) infection. Overcrowding, poor housing conditions, undernutrition and lack of access to healthcare play a role in the persistence of this disease in developing countries.

According to the World Heart Federation (WHF), the “primary prevention of acute rheumatic fever (the prevention of initial attack) is achieved by treatment of acute throat infections caused by group A streptococcus. This is achieved by up to 10 days of an oral antibiotic (usually penicillin) or a single intramuscular penicillin injection.” Moreover, regular antibiotics (usually monthly injections) can prevent patients with rheumatic fever from contracting further strep infections and causing progression of valve damage. The decline of rheumatic fever in developed countries is believed to be the result of improved living conditions and availability of antibiotics for treatment of group A streptococcal infection.

Although Rheumatic Heart Disease (RHD) has been eradicated in the developed world (Carapetis 2007), it still imparts significant health and economic burdens in developing countries worldwide (Ozer et al. 2005, Nitin et al. 2013). The irony is that the disease is completely preventable. A study performed in western Kenya showed that 9 out of the 526 enrolled patients exhibited echocardiographic evidence of RHD (Holland 2012). The transthoracic echocardiograms were performed on randomly selected hospitalized patients, aged 5-35, who were not previously diagnosed with RHD, on the surgical wards.


The Issues and Barriers to RHD Control

RHD is a neglected ‘preventable’ chronic disease that requires continuous and expensive medical follow-up if not prevented or treated effectively as early as possible. RHD is closely associated with poverty and poor quality medical services, so most RHD patients are not able to access medical services in a timely or effective manner (Okello et al. 2012). After initiating treatment, most patients are lost to follow up. As a result, the disease often progresses to advanced stages with complicating comorbid conditions, in which treatment is rarely successful. This contributes to the high morbidity and mortality rates observed in patients diagnosed with RHD in Kenya.

Kenya’s health system is inappropriately designed and inadequately financed to prevent and to manage RHD – with poorly equipped hospitals, a low doctor to patient ratio, and unaffordable drugs such as penicillin. The issue is exacerbated by a flawed national health insurance plan through which patients are still unable to afford medical services (Kimani et al. 2012, Stone et al. 2014).

RHD requires specialized care, only accessible in Nairobi and a few urban centers across Kenya (Jowi 2012). Even in such places, availability of services at public hospitals is limited due to inadequate numbers of cardiologists or lack of necessary diagnostic and treatment facilities. “We need to treat approximately 500 patients with RHD, but we can only handle about 50 open heart surgeries locally due to resource constraints.” stated Prof Gerald Yonga, Chair Department of Medicine at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Kenya.

Widespread lack of awareness and accurate information about RHD in part explain why prevention is rare and many RHD cases are diagnosed too late to treat effectively (Mondo et al. 2013). Furthermore, the presentation of RHD often mimics many other tropical fevers (malaria, typhoid), and thus also presents a challenge to early detection. At presentation, many healthcare workers misdiagnose, prescribe inappropriate treatment, and do not design adequate follow-up mechanisms for their patients, contributing to late presentation, complications, and meager patient follow-up.

 Action required to reduce barriers to RHD Prevention and Care

1.3RHD is preventable by detecting and treating streptococcal sore throats early, ensuring access to penicillin as well as by streamlining the healthcare infrastructure. There is thus a role for urgent multi-sectoral promotion of holistic healthcare in Kenya to ensure early diagnosis and affordable access to health services for those at risk, so as to alleviate this preventable burden.

Part 2 of this blog highlights some multisectoral actions in place in Kenya to combat RHD.



  1. Carapetis, Jonathan R. 2007. “Rheumatic      Heart Disease in Developing Countries.” New England Journal of Medicine      357 (5): 439–41. doi:10.1056/NEJMp078039.
  2. Holland, Thomas. 2012. “The Prevalence of      Rheumatic Heart Disease in Western Kenya: An Echocardiographic Study”.      Duke University.
  3. Joseph Nitin, Deepak Madi, Ganesh S Kumar,      Maria Nelliyanil, Vittal Saralaya, and Sharada Rai. 2013. “Clinical      Spectrum of Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease: A 10 Year      Experience in an Urban Area of South India.” North American Journal of      Medical Sciences 5 (11): 647–52. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.122307.
  4. Kimani James, Remare Ettarh, Catherine      Kyobutungi, Blessing Mberu, and Kanyiva Muindi. 2012. “Determinants for      Participation in a Public Health Insurance Program among Residents of      Urban Slums in Nairobi, Kenya: Results from a Cross-Sectional Survey.” BMC      Health Services Research 12 (March): 66. doi:10.1186/1472-6963-12-66.
  5. Mondo Charles, Charles Musoke, James Kayima,      Jurgen Freers, Wanzhu Zhang, Emmy Okello, Barbara Kakande, and Wilson      Nyakoojo. 2013. “Presenting Features of Newly Diagnosed Rheumatic Heart      Disease Patients in Mulago Hospital: A Pilot Study.” Cardiovascular      Journal of Africa 24 (2): 28–33. doi:10.5830/CVJA-2012-076.
  6. Okello Emmy, Barbara Kakande, Elias Sebatta,      James Kayima, Monica Kuteesa, Boniface Mutatina, Wilson Nyakoojo, et al.      2012. “Socioeconomic and Environmental Risk Factors among Rheumatic Heart      Disease Patients in Uganda.” PLoS ONE 7 (8).      doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043917.
  7. Ozer Sema, Olgu Hallioğlu, Süheyla Ozkutlu,      Alpay Celiker, Dursun Alehan, and Tevfik Karagöz. 2005. “Childhood Acute      Rheumatic Fever in Ankara, Turkey.” The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics 47      (2): 120–24.
  8. Stone GS, Titus Tarus, Mainard Shikanga,      Benson Biwott, Thomas Ngetich, Thomas Andale, Betsy Cheriro, and Wilson      Aruasa. 2014. “The Association between Insurance Status and in-Hospital      Mortality on the Public Medical Wards of a Kenyan Referral Hospital.”      Global Health Action 7 (February). doi:10.3402/gha.v7.23137.
  9. Jowi Christine Awuor. 2012. “African      Experiences of Humanitarian Cardiovascular Medicine: A Kenyan      Perspective.” Cardiovascular Diagnosis and Therapy 2 (3): 231–39.      doi:10.3978/j.issn.2223-3652.2012.07.04.


Dr. Duncan M. Matheka is a Kenyan Medical Doctor and Public Health Researcher. He is a member of Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YPCDN) and is the Nairobi RHD Patient Club Coordinator. Twitter @duncoh1

Dr. Laura Musambayi is a Kenyan Medical Doctor and the Nairobi RHD Club Assistant Coordinator.

Mohamed A. Omar is a fourth year medical student at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

Dr Kate Armstrong is the Founder and President of CLAN (Caring & Living As Neighbours) and the Executive Secretary of NCD Child (a global coalition committed to integrating children and adolescents within the global NCD, health and development discourse). Twitter @ncdchild


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Climate Change – Health Threat or Opportunity?

This week, we support the great work of  The Global Climate and Health Alliance – in time for the release of the latest IPCC WG report. This infographic explains the major ideas and themes – we encourage you to share it far and wide. 

IPCC Climate Change Infographic 02


The Global Climate and Health Alliance was formed in Durban in 2011 to tackle climate change and to protect and promote public health. The Alliance consists of health organizations from around the world united by a shared vision for a sustainable future. Specifically the Alliance members work together to: (1) Ensure health impacts are integrated into global, national and local responses to climate change; (2) Encourage the health sector to mitigate and adapt for climate change.

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An Epidemic of Trauma on the Road

This week on PLOS TGH, Christopher Tedeschi, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University and a practicing emergency physician, explores the global and local epidemic of road traffic accidents. From personal close-call, to big-picture epidemiology…


Last month, Graco Children’s Products recalled 3.8 million infant car seats amid concerns that their buckles could become jammed with spilled food or liquid, making it impossible to remove a child in an emergency.  My ten-month old daughter has been using one of those seats—and out of an abundance of caution and maybe some paranoia, my wife and I upgraded to a new model.

Flickr / Cars10s PhoToesJust before the recall we traveled in India for several weeks.  In Bangalore and Mumbai, we hopped in the back of taxis and rickshaws with no better restraint than a white-knuckled grip.  And now I’m supposed to worry about the tiny chance that some apple juice will gunk up the car seat buckle when I get home?

On our first day in Mumbai we had a near miss.  During a poorly executed U-turn, the front end of our taxi came within inches of a speeding city bus.  The driver slammed on the brakes.  We stopped short.  I grabbed our daughter.  The bus sped by, we took a deep breath and moved on.  It seemed like one of those all-too-common close calls on the roads in India (and lots of other places) — close calls that generally seem to work out without any real bodily harm.

But there is real injury.  Each year in India, road accidents claim thousands of lives, and injure many more.  India reported more than 130,000 road traffic deaths in 2010, likely an underestimate since statistics are based on police records.  The financial cost totals approximately three percent of the country’s GDP.

2861747022_82260c0bd1_bRegulation may help, but only partly.  National seat-belt and helmet laws are on the books, but WHO data suggest that less than 50 percent of motorcycle drivers (and less than ten percent of passengers) actually wear a helmet.  The numbers for seat belts are similar.  Enforcement is anemic.  A quick spin around any major city reveals that the law is followed only intermittently, although  more motorcyclists seem to be wearing helmets than even a few years ago.  But it’s still gut wrenching to watch un-helmeted drivers, carrying two or even three passengers, including small children, hurtle through traffic unprotected.

The impact of traumatic injuries, many which do not present to medical care in time and many more which are preventable, can be measured in thousands of lives and millions of dollars.  Worldwide, 92 percent of road traffic deaths happen in low or middle income nations.  In recent years, we have trained our sights in this setting on the prevention of non-communicable diseases—diabetes, heart disease, cancer.  But remember that trauma is a disease too, with predictable incidence and injury patterns amenable to primary and secondary prevention.  And while it is not now practical to mandate rear-facing car seats for infants in most of the world, we can be aggressive in promoting strategies to minimize trauma morbidity by means of helmet and seatbelt use, safe driving, and coordinated pre-hospital and emergency care.

Flickr / Peter RichmondSecondary prevention means adequate EMS systems to respond to accidents, including ambulances that function as more than souped-up taxis.  It also means development of standardized, location-specific protocols with pre-hospital providers trained in basic first aid and advanced trauma care.  Legal protections should permit good samaritans to assist the victims of road accidents without the fear of getting caught in lengthy official investigations or police cases.

In some places, US or European-style systems might not be the answer.  While working on EMS and disaster preparedness projects in India over the past several years, many people have told me that calling an ambulance wouldn’t even enter their mind in the event of a road accident.  Traffic is congested, transport times are long, and many ambulances arrive with little more than a stretcher and a few helpers to lift a patient.  Accident victims are often transported to the hospital in private cars or rickshaws.  A few years ago, public health officials in Colombo, Sri Lanka, implemented the brilliant idea of simply training rickshaw drivers as first responders.  More recently, innovative ideas such as developing a system of motorcycle ambulances have been proposed which may mold a pre-hospital system more appropriate for congested mega-cities.

Back in New York, I work in an emergency department which serves a high volume of patients from the Dominican Republic.  We often see patients who have arrived in the US seeking care for everything from heart disease and stroke to recent trauma.  And most of those traumas, not surprisingly, are young healthy people who were involved in road accidents.

The DR ranks second (only behind the Pacific island of Niue, where a tiny population leads to skewed statistics) on WHO’s list of death rates due to road traffic deaths.  Although Dominican law prescribes that motorcycle riders (but not passengers) wear helmets, few comply.  A proposed points system and stricter enforcement may help, but only real a cultural shift that enables drivers to assess risk and make safe choices will effect change.  Studies by Dominican and American researchers show that drivers feel that helmets are unnecessary for short distances, in rural areas, or for passengers, and are perceived as costly and unattractive.

Flickr / Satish KrishnamurthySure, I’ll bring my daughter to India again, and hopefully to plenty of other places.  We won’t necessarily use the same precautions that we use at home in New York.  As I buckle her into her government-approved, rear-facing, upgraded car seat, I think of the difference between the risk I am taking, and the risk to which all those families riding two-wheelers are exposed every day.  The gap is too big, and there are too many young, healthy lives at stake.  A technological fix only represents a small part of the problem—after all, helmets and seat belts are generally available and reasonably affordable.

The real challenge is to promote a culture that emphasizes the idea that road accidents happen, that their terrible consequences can be mitigated, and that home-grown systems can be developed to care for trauma patients.

Any ideas?


Christopher Tedeschi, MD, MA, is Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University and a practicing emergency physician.  He is past-chair of the disaster and humanitarian medicine committee of the Wilderness Medical Society and a Fellow of the Academy of Wilderness Medicine.  He has worked in disaster preparedness in India, Sri Lanka, the US and elsewhere with an interest in media coverage and communications during emergencies.  He is visiting faculty at the Global Emergency Medicine program at Weill Cornell Medical College.  Prior to medical school, he received his master’s from the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins and worked for HBO Documentaries.  He lives in NYC.

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Public health vs business thinking: a case study from the Hult Prize Competition

This week, regular PLOS blogger and Oxford academic Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe writes about the nexus of public health and business thinking – as well as some reflections on the global Hult Prize. Kremlin is currently doing a DPhil alongside his work as a researcher, quantifying the outcome of health policies addressing sustainable healthy diets.

Do public health academics and entrepreneurs think along the same lines? What would happen if we asked them to identify solutions to a problem that both groups care about? Would solutions be the same or drastically different? I had an opportunity to find some answers to these questions at the Hult Prize regional finals.

hultThe Hult Prize is funded by the Clinton Global Initiative to provide start-up funding (one million dollars) for the young social entrepreneurs who come up with the most compelling ideas to solve a problem faced by billions of the world’s population. This year the challenge was around solving the problem of rising non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases amongst slum dwellers.  The judges for the prize largely come from a business background including top multi-nationals.

One of the doctoral students in my research group within the Nuffield Department of Population  Health at the University of Oxford took the initiative to form a team and enter this competition. The focus of my research group is also solutions to the problem of NCDs and we felt this would be a great opportunity to contribute to a global issue that we have a passion for. Our team comprised of three members with a background in public health and two engineers from the Healthcare Innovations Unit at the University. We were delighted to hear that we have been selected for the regional final which was held on 8th March in London from more than 10,000 entry level applications.  I am going to explain the thought process we (public health researchers) used to analyse our potential solutions and how the judges (who predominantly represented the business community) analysed them at the regional finals.

Before I go on, I need to make it clear that we did not win the regional final. But the judges gave our solution a “special mention” before announcing the winner. They said it was innovative and we should think about taking it forward. This is exactly what we heard earlier, that only one team would win, but that we should use this as an opportunity to find the energy to develop our idea into a successful social- enterprise.

One of the key criteria was that the winning solution should be able to reach 25 million people in five years.  We started brainstorming, produced a list of possible ideas and critically analysed them within the team.Through our research group, we had access to expertise in NCDs to inform our thinking.

Visiting slums in Sri Lanka One of the questions we considered was how to make screening for NCDs  more affordable and accessible in slums. However, when we shared our thoughts with public health experts they asked us what we would do when we identified people with the disease and whether we could provide the cost for treatment and further management.   The majority of slum dwellers do not have access to free healthcare and can’t afford to pay for treatment.  The public health community generally believes that it is “unethical” to screen people unless you can provide any necessary treatment. We struggled to come up with a sustainable business plan which could provide affordable treatment to patients identified through screening.

The post 2015 development goal  discussions have recognised “universal health coverage” as a major priority, but discussions with global health experts confirmed that it is unlikely to be achieved within 5 years.  Therefore we thought it would be impossible to win, if we only increased screening without assuring treatment.  We dropped that idea and decided to move ahead with a different idea that didn’t involve screening.

At the London regional finals, three out of the top four winning solutions were based on screening. It was interesting to see how judges with a business background approached their task. The winning team clearly showed how they were going to screen people for diabetes with bees!  Clearly innovative and excellent presentation by them.  They said they would send any patients they identified to the “local hospital”. They did not say how people would afford treatment. As the reason for their winning, the judges mentioned that they were able to “ focus” on one important aspect of the problem of NCDs amongst slum dwellers. This clearly shows the difference in how public health and business communities analysed the same solution.

Two teams, out of the top four, proposed to use animals for screening. When public health professionals consider novel methods of screening we think about false positives and false negatives.  So, for example, if we are going to screen people we should know how many actual cases are we going to miss (false negatives) and how many people we are going to take through for treatment even though they don’t have the disease (false positives). No screening test is 100% accurate but we need statistics on false positives and false negatives to decide the cost-effectiveness of a test before scaling up. We thought it would be impossible to win the prize without those statistics, which take time and money to produce. But judges didn’t ask about false positives and negative  nor did teams provided this information during the pitch. Judges just asked “can animals survive in slum conditions ?”. This shows that they had concerns beyond the financial model, but they were completely different to the concerns of the public health community.

Our inability to ensure that screened patients had access to treatment and the challenges of quantifying the sensitivity of potential innovative screening methods led us to conclude that it would be impossible to win if we presented a “screening solution”. However, the other teams managed to win without having solutions to these problems. As public health professionals we often attend conferences and meetings with likeminded people and take similar approaches to tackle NCDs. The Hult Prize, by contrast, brings people from different backgrounds to the same stage. It provided me with a unique opportunity to learn that the business and public health communities approach the same problem in completely different ways.

This difference in approaches might explain why most public health professionals are not successful entrepreneurs. My public health colleagues might say that this is why, despite millions of dollars in investments, we still haven’t tackled some of the biggest problems in the world. The problem is this: we invest in ideas that are attractive and “fancy”, but not necessarily tested with public health tools. If we changed the composition of the judges to a panel with 50% public health background and 50% business background, what would have been different? We will never know. This is a business plan competition and (obviously) organisers invited top business professionals to judge. They were very passionate about these issues and provided feedback and comments to teams. But I certainly gathered enough reasons to answer the first question I raised in this blog.  Public health academics and entrepreneurs do not think along the same lines.

Why does the public health opinion matter in this competition? The aim of the 2014 competition is to address one of the main public health problems in the world and the solution is supposed to reach 25 million people.  The wining solution should be implemented in many countries, which would require the approval from local and national level public health regulators around the world.

How can we move forward to align these two approaches to ensure success in our future endeavours? Clearly we cannot do this by working only within our own disciplines. Here are the important questions: Are public health professionals ready to think out of the box? Would business professionals value public health opinions at all when they make final decisions?  As the next generation, we will have to work harder to integrate these various ways of thinking if we really want to change the world.

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Warwick TEDx – everything is real, there is no audience

This week on Translational Global Health, regular guest writer Alexandra Abel returns to share her experiences at the recent TEDxWarwick event. Alex embodies multi-sectoral, Global Health – with academic degrees and a deep interest in both the arts, and population health. 


Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Warwick Arts Centre to attend TEDxWarwick.

Empty seats before the doors open. Image via @Zena_Agha.

Empty seats before the doors open. Image via @Zena_Agha

Having hosted its first event in February 2009, TEDxWarwick is easily one of the most respected and long-standing TEDx events in the UK. Since inception, the event has grown in scale and scope year-on-year into the 8-hour programme, 1,200-strong audience, and 17-speaker line-up of 2014.

Hiba from our team tells people about Imagining the Future of Medicine

Hiba from our team tells people about Imagining the Future of Medicine


Aside from its reputation as a must-see show, I was keen to attend TEDxWarwick because I am part of the team organising a somewhat similar event called Imagining the Future of Medicine to be held at the Royal Albert Hall on the 21st of April 2014. The Warwick team kindly invited us to tell attendees about our own event during the breaks at theirs.

As we queued to enter the magnificent Butterworth Hall, where the 2012 and 2013 events were also held, we encountered an impressive piece of art, a large oak and metal sculpture, which read, EVERYTHING IS REAL. THERE IS NO AUDIENCE. In 2009, artist Mark Titchner was approached to make this work for the newly refurbished Butterworth Hall, and he developed the text as an allusion to three things…

Oak and metal sculpture outside Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre

Oak and metal sculpture outside Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre

Firstly, the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which states, “All the world’s a stage”, spoken by the melancholy Jaques in Act II Scene VII. The speech compares the world to a stage, and life to a play. Secondly, journalist Steve Lamacq’s questioning of the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers. In an interview with NME, Steve confronted the band, questioning their authenticity and their true dedication to punk-rock ethics. Welsh lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards tried to convince Steve the band were ‘for real’, and eventually used a razorblade to carve the phrase “4 REAL” into his arm, requiring 17 stitches. And thirdly, the broader cultural question of the digital age regarding the relationship between audiences and live performance.

Recordings of the talks from TEDxWarwick should be available to view online in a few weeks time. Until then, here’s what happened throughout the day…

The TEDxWarwick audience await the start of the show. Photo credit: Dana Muntean

The TEDxWarwick audience await the start of the show. Photo credit: Dana Muntean

The first of four sessions was called Crafting a Vision, and opening the show was statistician Nic Marks with his talk ‘Happiness Works’. Nic previously gave talk at TEDGlobal 2010 on The Happy Planet Index, which tracks national wellbeing against resource use – an alternative to GDP as a measure of progress. Nic estimates that unhappiness at work in a 100-person business costs $1 million per year, and convincingly made the case for happiness promotion as a cost-effective investment.

Second speaker of the day Maria Saridaki made us all feel more playful with her talk on games. Maria organised the international street games festival Athens Plaython, and reminded us that the freedom of public space is a beautiful thing – every city can be a playground.

The Sensory Homunculus

The Sensory Homunculus

I managed to resist the urge to initiate a giant game of tag; but only because it was time for third speaker and doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab Gershon Dublon. Gershon showed us caricatured depictions of the ways we interact with the world around us: Smartphone Homunculus had one giant eye, and one giant finger (for texting etc.), whereas Sensory Homunculus had large hands and mouth, showing what the human body would look like if built in proportion to its sensory significance.

The last speaker of Session one was filmmaker and artist Kristina Cranfeld who challenged the concept of the ‘perfect’ citizen, and played her warmly received short film ‘Manufactured Britishness’, based on the ‘Life in the UK’ test, which examines skills for integrating into a British Society. You can watch the trailer for this film below; it doesn’t give much away, but you can get a feel of Kristina’s fictional future world, where hopeful citizens-to-be are tested on their ability to queue (of course!), remain calm and polite, build a brick wall, and hold the Union Jack steady. Largely concerned with immigration and human identity, Kristina’s art helped us remember that we are all global citizens, and that creative disciplines do have a place in political discussion.

Session two was called Roots of Inspiration and featured five speakers, all of whom have been inspired to create something new. First up was designer Jim Reeves who developed GravityLight, a $6 device that harnesses the power of weight and gravity, requiring 3 seconds charge for 25 minutes or power, instantly available with no running costs. There are currently 1.5 billion people in the world who have no access to reliable mains electricity, and rely instead on biomass fuels. This simple, but effective lighting innovation is a viable alternative to hazardous, but ubiquitous, kerosene lamps.

Alison Benjamin, Society Editor for The Guardian, and co-founder of the social enterprise Urban Bees, left the room buzzing with her talk on how urban Bee Keeping can positively affect people and communities, and change the way you see the world. Alison showed us how bees are great ambassadors for nature, with 1 in 3 mouthfuls we eat pollinated by bees”.

Green Graffiti: Starbucks logo washed onto pavement

Green Graffiti: Starbucks logo washed onto pavement. Image via @Pittachu

Next, Jim Bowes spoke about sustainable advertising, and surprised the audience with the exciting idea of monetising dirt through reverse graffiti. Reverse graffiti is the process of ‘cleaning’ text or a logo onto a surface such as the pavement or a wall, and people who write, “wash me” on particularly dirty vehicles are inadvertently participating in this art! Jim’s unconventional advertising, Green Graffiti, has a lower impact on the environment and a higher impact on the audience. I think we all looked at dirt a little differently after his talk.

Nahji Chu had the audience in fits of laughter from the start with her ‘fake’ Vietnamese accent, but swiftly brought them to tears with stories of her time spent as a refugee and her move to Australia in 1978. Nahji described her journey as a food entrepreneur and an immigrant. She even uses her refugee visa as the logo of her company, misschu tuck-shop. Nahji appreciates the role and power of humour in society, and “You ling we bling” is the slogan used to promote their home delivery service.

Session two came to a close with the powerful and poignant poetry of Zena Agha. Zena addressed the complex concept of identity, and performed a poem called ‘Writing Identities’. It is hard to believe that Zena started writing poetry only 18 months ago in a library in Warwick. At the TEDxWarwick Salon (women) event, a smaller gathering prior to the main show, Zena spoke about how Islam made her a feminist. You can watch her Salon talk, and experience some of her original performed poetry in the video below.

Session three was called Unchartered Territories, and came to an audibly powerful start with beatboxing sensation THePETEBOX. Pete demonstrated some of his characteristic vocal acrobatics before performing an impressive piece from his album ‘Future Loops’. Next up was Christian Guy, Managing Director at The Centre of Social Justice, a think tank that seeks effective solutions to poverty in Britain. Christian told us stories of a parallel Britain, and why we must put poverty centre stage. He argued that we all have a duty to engage in British politics, and not to abandon it, something with which host Siobhan Benita heartily agreed.

Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor at The Economist, spoke about Big Data dystopia. Big Data is a term that seems to be popping up everywhere in a variety of contexts, from healthcare to international security, but Kenneth gave us a better understanding of the concept itself, and the kingdom over which Big Data inevitably rules. If someone is deemed to be 95% likely to commit a crime in the next week, what should be done? Could someone really be arrested for statistical culpability?

Will the legal standard of probable cause become probabilistic cause?” – Kenneth Cukier

Martin shows different stages of human regeneration

Martin shows different stages of human regeneration

Session three ended with Martin Birchall, one of the world’s leading Otolaryngologists, who co-led the pioneering research team that carried out the first transplant of a human windpipe reconstructed using stem cells. Anyone looking to gain further insight into Martin’s fascinating work (highly recommended) can watch his Royal Free London NHS Trust talk Building organs from stem cells.


Nicola plays some Bach on her Stradivarius violin

Nicola plays some Bach on her Stradivarius violin

The final session of the day was called Conquering Mountains, and began with the stunningly talented Nicola Benedetti, most sought after violinist of her generation, and winner of a string of awards (no pun intended), including Best Female Artist at the 2012 Classical BRIT Awards.

Nicola started off by, of course, performing, and then stepped into the red circle for her first ever public speaking appearance. Nicola related her musical journey to a delighted audience, from the moment she truly emotionally connected with classical music at the age of 6, to becoming a proud ‘big sister’ to Sistema Scotland children. Nicola ended by once again picking up her Gariel Stradivarius, made in 1717, and playing unaccompanied Bach, music of almost identical age to her instrument.

Next up was photographer Matej Peljhan who told us of Luka, a little boy with muscular dystrophy who wanted to be photographed doing the things he could not do in reality. Matej made Luka’s wish come true, taking photos from above with Luka strategically positioned on the floor, images of Le Petit Prince, and received a well-deserved standing ovation from several members of the audience.

The imaginary world is not an escape, but a part of our reality, a never ending source for our creativity.” – Matej Palijhan

George's drawing of 11 year old Halid as he told his story. Image:

George’s drawing of 11 year old Halid as he told his story. Image:

Penultimate speaker of the day George Butler shared his passion for drawing and the incredible stories he’d uncovered through this art. George recounted tales of his time in Syria, where he travelled specifically to location draw. He spent some time with the Free Syrian Army, and returned to record stories amongst the refugees and the field hospitals. He heard unimaginably heartbreaking accounts of conflict from civilians, including 11-year-old Halid who had witnessed the brutal killing of his entire family only two weeks earlier. I have to say, I found George’s talk particularly moving, and thought he offered a unique and under-reported look at life in a state of prolonged conflict. It is remarkable how something so simple allowed him to take a step into the lives of others and make such a strong connection.

The final speaker of the fourth session, and of the day, was Kah Walla, the first woman to ever run for presidency of Cameroon. Kah’s talk was titled ‘Daring to invent the future of Africa’. She spoke about development, corruption, and governance – telling us Africa is not poor, but poorly run – and described her personal and political struggles.

No matter what type of violence and brutalities we face, we still have power.” – Kah Walla

Kah’s passionate speech, and show finale, also received standing ovation, and she exited the stage to rapturous applause. This level of appreciation continued in recognition of the organising team, as all 26 of them took to the stage to thank the audience for their participation and thank the speakers for their time and efforts.

I always feel that one of the downsides of TED and TED-style events is the limited opportunity to ask questions, although the Warwick programme did include ‘breakout sessions’ at lunch with a couple of speakers, and superficially, this dialogue now continually takes place in the twittersphere. I’m a big fan of Q&A, but I also appreciate that this kind of event is more of a show than a conference, and the intention is to inform and inspire, rather than debate.

TEDxWarwick 2014 is over for another year. Image via @Em216H.

TEDxWarwick 2014 is over for another year. Image via @Em216H

This unique story-telling style has rapidly captured the attention of a global audience, and continues to excite and engage people of all ages and backgrounds. Only so much can be achieved in a day; and TEDxWarwick managed to achieve a lot. Undoubtedly, many people (including me) are already looking forward to 2015.

Many congratulations to the team!


Alexandra Abel is a graduate from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music. She has a keen interest in both Global Health and Performing Arts, and in her spare time, enjoys performing with her local theatre company. She is also part of the team organising the aforementioned ‘Imagining the Future of Medicine’ event at the Royal Albert Hall in London in April. From September, she will be a medical student.

Join her on twitter @alexandraabel

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Global Health PodCast Interview with Dr Fiona Lander, Medical Doctor & Human Rights Lawyer

This week on PLOS Translational Global Health, we continue our podcast series in Global Health with medical doctor and human rights lawyer, Fiona Lander. Coming from  Melbourne, in South-East Australia, Alessandro asks Fiona about her time with the United Nations, in medical practice and travelling the globe.

uni-news2Dr Fiona Lander holds degrees with dual honours in Medicine/Surgery and Laws from Monash University. She works in the areas of intellectual property and pro bono law, alongside her medical practice in the field of emergency medicine. Fiona previously worked in India as Senior Officer assisting the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, and has also worked with the Health and Human Rights team of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. She is the founder of the Global Health and Medicine working group at the Henley Club, Melbourne.

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Reflections on Progress to Reduce Non-Communicable Diseases

This week on Translational Global Health, regular blogger Jo Jewell - recently of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) - offers an important reflection and summary on the progress thus far, in the global prevention and mitigation of NCDs. 

Flickr /  USAID_IMAGESIn September 2011, public health NGOs were gearing up for the High-Level Meeting of the United Nations on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). This was only the second time that the UN General Assembly had met on a health issue. As such it was both a landmark occasion and an unprecedented opportunity to raise political awareness of the catastrophic impact of NCDs around the world.

Public health advocates wanted the meeting to bring a similar level of political attention and sense of urgency to NCDs as had previously been achieved for the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Critically, it was hoped that the Political Declaration that was to be agreed would secure much greater action worldwide on the prevention and control of NCDs. In so doing, all governments would set in stone their political ambition, commitment and accountability to addressing NCDs.

It was in this optimistic context that I joined the policy department at World Cancer Research Fund International. Thankfully, the Political Declaration was universally adopted by governments from around the world. In it they agreed a roadmap for international action. As such, my work at WCRF International has been influenced by the outcomes of this meeting. As I sadly prepare to leave WCRF International to take on a new career challenge, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the impact of that High-Level Meeting and what has happened during this exciting period for NCD policy worldwide.

Flickr / USC Global HealthAction since the UN Declaration on NCDs.

The UN Political Declaration has been instrumental in galvanising global action on NCDs. It has mandated international agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Development Programme to expand their work programmes on NCDs and to collaborate on this issue more than ever before. While there is still a need to ensure that NCDs are truly integrated in all the relevant areas – such as the ongoing discussions around the post-2015 global development agenda, it is undeniable that the profile of NCDs has risen as a result.

In the years since the Political Declaration, the WHO has successfully adopted a global policy architecture for NCDs, including a Global Action Plan, a set of global targets (designed to incentivise and drive action), a framework for monitoring progress, and a voluntary global target to reduce premature deaths from NCDs by 25% by 2025.

As a result, NCDs are well and truly established on the health policy map, and the WHO – as the lead agency on health – has articulated what it would like to see national governments do in terms of developing and implementing policies.

What has this meant for our work?

For World Cancer Research Fund International the new global policy architecture on NCDs galvanised our work advocating the wider implementation of effective policies for the prevention of cancer and other NCDs. We developed the NOURISHING Framework to bring together key areas where governments need to take policy actions to promote healthier eating and ultimately to help achieve the 25 by 25 goal. Having an agreed policy framework is critical because it allows the political discussion to move from the “what” to the “how”, which is where there is most potential to support national governments in developing policies.

Flickr / HealthGaugeAs part of NOURISHING we pulled together the policy actions that countries are taking around the world (e.g. on nutrition labelling) so we could see – and share with others – what countries are doing to implement these global agreements. What are other countries doing”? is a question we heard often from government officials. Even more, I used to hear “what is the evidence that policy is effective?” So we developed a plan to collate, review and interpret the evidence base. This is work I will be excited to see WCRF International develop into the future, and which I look forward to using in my new role at the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe.

Working internationally is different to working at the national level. Nationally, policy actions have to be tailored to contexts and populations; internationally, it’s about identifying the core elements of well-designed policy that are transferable globally. One of those elements inevitably involves the law, which is why we explored the role of law in obesity prevention in our first working paper, and collaborated with the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer.

Where are we going next and what are the challenges?

By its very nature, public health evidence is complex. This is particularly the case for multi-factorial issues such as obesity.  As I leave World Cancer Research Fund International my hope is that it ultimately does for policy what it has always done so well in its science programmes (notably for Second Expert Report and now with the Continuous Update Project). That is, to ensure that all the evidence is brought together in a way that we can learn from it and take action. Communicating what has been learned to governments, including analysis of the real-world effects of innovative policies, should enable even more policy action on NCDs and a greater confidence in our understanding of the “how” part of the equation. This will be the true legacy of the Political Declaration.


This post was cross-posted from the blog of the WCRF. For more on this post and other blog posts by the WCRF, head to their website.


Jo Jewell has a background in European politics and has a Masters in Health Policy, Planning, and Financing. His experience mainly relates to food and alcohol policy, and his work has focused on advocacy at the European and global levels. He is a member of the Global Steering Committee for the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network. 


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