What is Global Health?

I work in the field of global health. When I try to explain to people what it is I do, I'm often met with many questions and even more misconceptions. "So is that like what Bill Gates does?" "Oh that's all about vaccines, right?" "Oh my gosh, so you help cute little African children?"

While it's easy to take offense, I've learned that it is simply the realty. People are ignorant about global health. Not necessarily because they want to be. Just simply because it's not a sexy topic - I mean, how can the global HIV/AIDS crisis compete with Kim Kardashian's naked Paper cover? Plus, what little attention global health does get is usually tied to popular icons, like Bill Gates or Bono. 

I admit that before starting my graduate studies I had a pretty limited understanding of what global health encompassed - and boy, does it encompass a lot! 

So.. what is global health?? 

(tip: skip to the bottom if you want the short version) 


1. Global health affects us all

Global health is often thought of as the "us"-helping-"them"-model - but this is wrong. Global health affects us all. 

Thanks to globalization and the amazing advances in technology over the past few decades, our world is more interconnected than ever before. People, goods and information can cross international borders within a matter of hours, or thanks to the power of the Internet, within a few seconds. Consequently, infectious disease and epidemics can also move and spread more easily (think: ebola this past year). The discipline of global health grew from the recognition that there are health issues that transcend any natural or man-made boundaries and require cooperation at the global level. This includes specific diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, as well as more broad areas like clean water and sanitation, sexual and reproductive health and non-communicable diseases. 

Why these issues? Well, for example, HIV affects more than 35 million people worldwide, with 6,000 new infections happening every day; malaria is responsible for more than 627,000 deaths each year, 70% of which are children under the age of 5; and 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water  (that's more than 2.5 times the U.S. population)! 

But beyond the sheer size of these global issues, the resulting consequences of doing nothing to address them are universal. And each has its own set of social, political and economic determinants that span beyond what any one country can tackle alone. These are issues that don't just affect people in the U.S.; they don't just affect people in Sub-Saharan Africa; they affect us all. 

2. Global health is NOT the same as "international health"

Global health is also often used interchangeably with "international health". Wrong again. The two terms actually refer to two distinct focuses of health, although they are not mutually exclusive. 

International health focuses on the health issues between nations and/or health issues outside of one's own country. As such, international health issues are primarily addressed through bilateral or bi-national cooperation. In contrast, global health focuses on health issues hat transcend border and takes into consideration the health needs of the entire global population above the concerns of particular nations. As such, global health issues require the involvement of numerous stakeholders - from governments to non-government entities, private agencies, civil society organizations, philanthropic foundations, the media, etc.  

3. Global health involves many disciplines 

While the name itself may lead you to believe that 'global health' deals exclusively with medical or public health solutions, this is (once again) wrong. 

Global health is in fact highly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. As you can imagine, global health issues are complex and are influenced heavily by the social, economic and political context in which they take place. So in addition to competencies in medicine and health science, understanding and addressing global health issues requires drawing appropriately from multiple disciplines - this includes everything from agriculture to social work, politics to law. In the global HIV/AIDS crisis, for example, community programs that work with orphans and vulnerable children will inevitably involve proper child welfare practices. Similarly, national campaigns for increasing access to affordable antiretroviral therapy through patent opposition will need expertise in law and trade. 

In short ... 

Global health is the area of study, research and practice that works to improve the health of all people worldwide. It focuses on health issues that are 'global' in terms of scale (how many people it affects), impact (how profoundly it affects people and society as a whole) and action (how many actors are needed to be engaged in tackling the problem). And it requires the integration of multiple disciplines to adequately address issues within the social, economic and political context that surround them. 

Sources: American Journal of Public Health, Wikipedia, Northwestern University Center for Global Health, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, Malaria (WHO), Water.org