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International Health

First-ever Health Systems Program Student "Pitch-it" Competition

The Health Systems Program recently hosted a competition for master's students to develop a proposal addressing a public health problem and pitch it to a panel of faculty judges for a hypothetical $1 million grant. The Health Systems Program is housed in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Students in the MSPH in International Health, Health Systems and MHS in Global Health Economics degree programs competed during the Health Systems Graduate Seminar. The competition, the brainchild of one student, allowed teams to apply knowledge learned across their courses from the past year to develop their proposals. As part of the health systems seminar, students also applied practical team-building and communication skills that were honed over the last two terms. As the competition coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, students recognized this as an opportunity to think critically about the unique role that health systems play in the COVID-19 response.

Five teams worked with a health systems faculty advisor to develop proposals addressing a health systems aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic and response. The teams pitched their proposals over Zoom to a panel of health systems faculty members comprised of Yusra Shawar, PhD, Krishna Rao, PhD, and Anthony So, PhD. Judges assessed each pitch on dimensions related to the design, significance, and delivery of the proposal, before asking brief clarifying questions. Faculty judges were impressed by the innovative ideas of competition teams and their seemingly effortless transition to online presenting. Judges were hard-pressed to determine a winner, even considering the possibility of splitting the award. In the end, the winning team was cited as an example of how a clear vision and cohesive team spirit can mobilize partners from around the world to potentially strengthen health systems.

The winning team’s proposal was titled, International Working Group for Health Systems Readiness and Responsiveness, presented by Priyanka Das (MSPH expected in 2021), Natasha Kaushal (MSPH expected in 2021), Malvikha Manoj (MSPH expected in 2021), Joseph Millward, MHS ’20, and Catherine Villanueva (MSPH expected in 2021). Sara Bennett, PhD, professor in the Department of International Health and director of the Health Systems Program, was the team’s faculty advisor.

The International Working Group for Health Systems Readiness and Responsiveness proposal grew out of a recognition that new, younger, and more diverse voices are needed in response to the pandemic. Through discussions with Bennett, the team learned that while there was interest from the public health community in establishing an international working group (IWG) to learn about health systems responses to COVID-19, there was not a clear scope or consensus on membership and representation. The team’s focus for the Health Systems Program competition became developing an IWG that would rally the next generation of public health professionals to better understand the challenges and opportunities health systems face in preparing and responding to crises around the world.

The team circulated a survey to academic communities to identify perceived gaps in current health system responses and how an IWG could best support the global community. Examples of gaps included in the survey were the ability of health systems to sustain baseline levels of routine healthcare delivery; critical infrastructure and transportation; national legislation, policy and planning; infection prevention and control; flexible plans and management structures; medical supplies and equipment; health workforce; information management; leadership and command structure; barriers to healthcare access; preparedness and emergency response; collaboration, coordination, and partnerships; and plans for post-event recovery. Survey respondents were also asked how the IWG could most usefully assist in the COVID-19 response and future health systems challenges.

The survey has since been completed by over 150 people from 47 countries. The team also identified partner institutions in each of the six regions of the World Health Organization (WHO)—African Region, Region of the Americas, South-East Asia Region, European Region, Eastern Mediterranean Region, and Western Pacific Region—to launch a more inclusive and representative working group.

“Our ultimate goal is that the IWG will be able to inform both current and future health systems responses and engage a greater number of students and professionals in a dialogue around the importance of health system readiness and responsiveness,” says Malvikha Manoj, an MSPH student on the winning team.

Next steps are to meet with student representatives from these academic institutions across the six regions and develop a steering committee for the international working group. Using the survey as a compass, the team aims for the IWG to collate experiences from leaders and organizations that have been doing well in the COVID-19 response, as well as establish a pipeline for capacity strengthening in health systems response and readiness.

Other proposals in the competition covered a range of public health issues related to COVID-19, including gender differences of personal protective equipment and attributed health outcomes, an index for health system resilience in the United States, adult vaccine introduction strategy for COVID-19 among undocumented migrants, and estimating the economic burden of COVID-19 to inform evidence-based decision-making. A recording of the competition is available here. The health system seminar instructors hope to expand the competition over several terms and turn it into an annual event.