Talking global health equity with NU alum and PIH employee Jonathan Shaffer

Jonathan Shaffer, in Haiti, visiting patients with community health workers.  Courtesy of Jonathan Shaffer

Jonathan Shaffer, in Haiti, visiting patients with community health workers.
Courtesy of Jonathan Shaffer

While a student at Northwestern University from 2005 to 2009, Jonathan Shaffer made his passion for health-as-a-human-right known. For two years, he served as the president of the school’s GlobeMed program, increasing the student involvement threefold and helping to raise more than $12,000 for medical efforts in Ghana. After he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and global health, Shaffer became GlobeMed’s executive director and helped the program expand both in the United States and abroad, including in Africa and South America.

For nearly the past two years, Shaffer has been the community engagement coordinator for Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization that strives to provide better health care to impoverished communities both domestic and foreign. Shaffer recently spoke to the Global Health Portal about his work, including the unique program he’s leading to improve the health of people across the country.

Q: What drew you to working for Partners in Health?
A: Partners in Health has been a dream job of mine for a long time. My experience has been really just focused on how to build collective impact and collective effort in global health. How do we think about a broad-based movement that can advance human rights and health for people? What is the role of the average person to advance the right to health?

Q; What are you working on at PIH right now?
A: What I’m doing at PIH now is very similar in a lot of ways to GlobeMed. What we’re trying to do is engage young professional communities, such as churches and universities, and create broad-based structure through which average people can really plug in and work with Partners in Health. It’s a pilot program called PIH Engage. We started this in October. We’ve already grown to more than 50 communities across the country. It speaks to a huge overwhelming grassroots interest in global health. The goal of PIH Engage really is to bring many more people into working alongside Partner in Health through education. We’re raising the profile of health and social justice, working to advocate.

Q: How does PIH Engage work?
A: It’s a volunteer effort. There are 12 regional organizers. They are supporting these communities in their region. Community coordinators themselves are average folks who’ve signed up through our website, stumbled upon us via social media. They have digitally raised their hand and said, ‘I’d like to be involved in this movement for health as a human right.’ We get them going on whatever their community may be. Really what we want is for people who care deeply about global health equity to really have a clear structure and outlet through which to participate in this movement. I think there’s a huge opportunity to imagine a new way for civil society to participate in this movement.

Q: Where is PIH Engage focusing?
A: There is a team in Chicago, a team in Madison, a team in Columbus. The Midwest is really hitting hard for community organizing. People are really excited in the Midwest. There are also teams in Portland, Seattle, and D.C. We need to up the ante in south and southwest. The way we’ve thought about is, ‘Let’s put this out into the universe and see who bites and jumps at this opportunity.’ That’s where we are. It’s a yearlong campaign between October 2012 and June 2013. By the end of June, we hope to have a much clearer sense of what worked, and what didn’t work. We’ll use the summer as a period of reflection and revamping. We’ll re-launch the program in September with the lessons we’ve learned.

Q: What does global health mean to you?
A: For me, I think global health isn’t really enough. I think we need to think more about three words: global health equity. I take the term global to mean anywhere on the globe, including the United States. Global health, to me, is not international health. It’s not about us and them but much more about disparities where they exist. And we have tremendous disparities right here. Take a ride down the Red Line. We have inequitable systems currently. How do we build systems that can reduce and remove unjust disparities wherever they may exist on the globe? We’re working hard to imagine, fund and the ultimately build the systems necessary to remove unjust disparities around the globe.

Q: PIH is headquartered in the Boston area—what’s going on there?
A: Partners in Health exists through sister organizations, and serve and are led by local people. Our program in Boston is PACT, a small project, working to show and demonstrate that community health workers are able to provide much higher level and quality care to people living with HIV in the city of Boston. There are overwhelming barriers that prevent people living in poverty from accessing good clinical care: lack of transportation, opportunity costs of getting to the clinic, and childcare. Over and over again, we see these things. In those contexts, how do you provide good clinical care to those individuals? To us, that’s where community health workers come in. We train them, give them jobs. They go to patients’ homes and watch them every day, make sure they take their medicine. It’s to show that in the setting of a very wealthy country, we can provide good clinical care to poor people.

Q: How would you say this country does in terms of health care?

A: The United States does pretty badly, broadly, in terms of equity of outcomes in terms of health care. We spend a lot, there’s no doubt about that. The percentage of GDP spent on health care is enormous, it’s extraordinary. Why is this the case? You have to look at it in terms of equity. We don’t have health insurance, especially for the poor. There are significant barriers for many Americans. It’s true in Boston, it’s certainly true in Chicago, it’s true in every city in the United States. There are some really incredible lessons that we can be learning from Rwanda, from Haiti, that can be brought and have a ton of value in the U.S.

Q: What got you interested in this field?
A: A few experiences drew me to wanting to work on global health. My parents have had a big influence on me. They’ve always pushed me to think about my own experiences, my own skill set, the opportunities kind of handed to me by their hard work but also by circumstances that I’ve grown up in, and pushed me to really think hard about where to invest my time and energy. My mom was a teacher, and my dad worked for a nonprofit for a long time. I studied biomedical engineering. I chose community organizing and collective activism. My parents set the tone. When I got to Northwestern, a few experiences enabled me to commit to this work. I had an undergraduate research grant to travel to Ghana, and seeing that work—the challenges and complexities… All of those experiences helped shape a way of looking at the world.

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