(Published - 8 November 2018)
“From a young age I had questions about inequality and social justice, and I was concerned with how to change the world. That led me almost inevitably - and perhaps inadvertently - towards public health...and I don’t think I quite understood what I was getting myself into!”
So says Prof Asha George of the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) School of Public Health (SoPH), who has recently been appointed as Chair of Health Systems Global – the first international membership organisation fully dedicated to promoting health systems research and knowledge translation.
The appointment was announced at the Fifth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research (HSR2018) in Liverpool, which brought together over 2,200 policy makers, advocates, practitioners and researchers from across the world to discuss how to make progress towards universal health coverage.
“It’s an honour to be confirmed as Chair of Health Systems Global, a membership society that not only champions health systems research and knowledge translation, but also models best practice by taking seriously issues of inclusiveness and diversity within global health.”
Prof George holds the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Health Systems Complexity and Social Change. She previously served as Vice-Chair for HSG, and will bring significant international experience (she has worked as an advisor to UNICEF, WHO and USAID on community-based approaches) and commitment to her new role - along with a strong vision for the organisation’s future.
“In the next two years, apart from planning for the next symposium convened by a Middle Eastern consortium in Dubai, I look forward to working with the membership to make Health Systems Global truly global, through regional and country level action in partnership with key networks, universities and civil society organisations.”
Thinking Global, Acting Local
Prof George understands the importance of a global approach to health.
Born in India, she has worked and studied all over the world, from Mexico and India to the USA and the UK (her first degree in International Relations comes from Georgetown University, her MSc in Public Health is from Harvard, and her DPhil in Development Studies is from the University of Sussex).
As SARCHi Chair, Prof George has a big job - she has to deal with the complexities of a health system struggling with the legacies of both colonialism and apartheid, which was never set up to adequately serve the majority of the country, and which is struggling to manage the health issues and diseases of both resource constrained and affluent nations.
Her work engages with the social analysis of the frontline interface of health systems from a governance, gender and human rights perspective. This entails examining the socio-political processes underpinning frontline community and provider interventions.
“You need to understand the perspectives of marginalised communities, as well as those of the health workers and the health managers, and what kinds of challenges health workers and community members face in providing and accessing services.”
And it’s not enough to just collaborate with other researchers on this matter - teaching public health to students, which has long been a big motivating factor in her work, is necessary to effect lasting change. “I think it’s important to give back to people who are starting their careers - and hope that they keep that flame burning even as they move up in the world. You have to think of the next generations.”
Luckily, the School of Public Health is well-equipped to help her make the most of it.
“Some very innovative things are happening here,” says Prof George. “UWC has a tremendous reputation for contributing to change, and I feel very privileged to be part of a team that is still striving and contributing towards social change at the very heart of its mission.”
“There’s a reason why you do research and publish findings - and that’s to record, reflect and actually effect change,” she notes. “You can't sit on the sidelines.”