The topic of global health has come to the forefront of people’s minds as the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously impacted every nation around the world. There are widespread feelings of uncertainty about the future. How can the disease be contained from further spread? What other types of widespread diseases or threats will we face going forward? As the world becomes increasingly globalized, these issues become more important and the demand for health care leadership rises.
What Is Global Health?
What is “global health,” and why is global health important? Although there is no single standard definition, global health refers to the health of populations worldwide as opposed to the health of individuals, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It is concerned with health issues that transcend national borders or have the potential to impact the world’s economies and political climates.
Global health as a concept looks ahead so that nations can work together to prepare for possible problems.
In the case of COVID-19, the disease spread rapidly across the globe and many nations reached the brink of recession. However, that pandemic is just one example of numerous scenarios that, if not addressed, could threaten lives around the world. Global health emphasizes prevention at the population level and is vital to helping maintain global security. Global health is important because it aims to improve worldwide health, access to health care services and the quality of health care for all.
Global health considers several determinants, or factors, that influence health status. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion lists several examples, including diet and physical fitness, lack of health care access, exposure to toxic substances and compliance with health and safety regulations. Though disruptions to global health can affect any nation, developing nations are more vulnerable because of their weaker socioeconomic infrastructures.
By analyzing a community’s personal, social, economic and environmental determinants, health experts can then promote wellness in a targeted fashion as well as help minimize the effects of diseases in that community. This in turn leads to a stronger economy, as fewer illnesses occur and productivity is not negatively impacted.
Examples of Global Health Disruptions
The world faces several global health challenges, ranging from the growing obesity rate and environmental pollution, to various humanitarian crises and the rise of antibiotic-resistant germs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some of the most pressing threats to global health include the following.
Highly Contagious Pathogens
The world faces the ongoing threat of contagious pathogens, including Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). As people move to more crowded urban living areas, contagious diseases spread more easily. This spread is compounded in severely depressed areas that lack basic sanitation and access to fresh water.
The rise of antimicrobial resistance creates even more potential for the spread of disease, as do conditions such as weaker health systems, wars and the increase of pathogen-transmission between animal and human populations. National governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other entities have begun to address these threats by supporting vaccine development, greater access to health care and other measures.
Another contagious pathogen is influenza, which was the cause of the deadly Spanish flu of 1918. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the pandemic killed some 50 million people around the world over two years. Influenza remains a serious global health threat, with up to 650,000 influenza-related deaths each year according to the WHO.
Health leaders work in collaboration to track influenza and develop vaccines and treatments while also focusing on prevention and preparedness. As with other highly contagious pathogens, a global strategy is important. One infected passenger traveling internationally by plane can spread influenza germs around the world in just a few hours.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, still remains one of the world’s most serious health challenges. The Department of Health and Human Services’ HIV.gov reports that some 38 million people around the world were infected with HIV in 2019. The number of individuals who acquire HIV is declining however, thanks to a stronger commitment to fighting the virus. To continue this downward infection trend, access to HIV testing and treatments needs to improve, and research to develop a cure needs to continue. Nations that are hardest hit by HIV also tend to be the same nations that suffer from other infectious diseases, food shortages, and other problems.
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes are the leading causes of death globally, according to the WHO. They are commonly caused by risk factors such as the use of tobacco, unhealthy diets, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. To overcome the threat of NCDs, the international public health agency recommends national governments take comprehensive and integrated action. For example, countries should strive to make tests and treatments widely available to their populations.
Climate change is contributing to extreme weather, including dangerous heat waves. Beyond being life-threatening, warmer temperatures can lead to a loss of productivity, reduced crop yields and conditions that are optimal for the spread of infectious diseases. Research institutions from around the world have partnered to track the health impact and government responses to climate change. They’ve learned that climate change affects all nations, and the response to climate change will have a major impact on the world’s health.
A Health Care Leader’s Role in Global Health
Whether a nation is stable or in crisis, global health issues should always remain a priority. Health challenges, including illness and disease, do not abide by borders. In an increasingly interconnected world, it is vital for health care leaders to recognize the challenges and opportunities presented by that interconnectivity. Effective leaders must be aware and prepared—aware of the issues influencing global health and prepared for when and how those issues will impact their communities.
Healthcare Executive magazine highlights some of the attributes of pandemic leadership. Strong leaders, the publication says, will work to ensure a crisis management plan has been prepared for handling pandemics or contagions and provide the resources and training to medical staff to deal with such events. The plan may also include building financial flexibility into an organization’s business model so it can react quickly when necessary. Establishing a strong telehealth service is also a worthy consideration for addressing the safety of patients and health care providers in the event of a contagious pathogen or flu outbreak.
Collaboration with government and public health agencies is another key responsibility for health care leaders when dealing with an unexpected global event or even the more common noncommunicable diseases. Those partners can provide vital guidance, information and support during emergencies and help develop prevention and control strategies for those chronic conditions seen across the globe.
It is important to remember that collaboration is a two-way street; health care leaders must ensure accurate, complete data is shared when appropriate. That data—which may include number of cases, number of deaths and advancements in treatment—can help determine the distribution of supplies, enable contact tracing for contagious diseases and improve overall patient outcomes.
In addition to some of the qualities mentioned above, successful health care leaders will exhibit integrity, empathy and a willingness to listen. Strong technical skills are required as well to thrive in this fast-changing, increasingly global field.
Entering a Career in Global Health Leadership
Global health is important to each and every one of us. Potential health risks can impact everyone around the world, regardless of wealth, power or status. Because there are so many possible global health disruptions, demand is high for knowledgeable leaders who can help prevent or mitigate the damage and impact experienced in health crises.
Advanced education is crucial for those who wish to deepen their leadership skills and gain the knowledge to be a vital presence in global health.
Explore Wake Forest University’s online Master of Healthcare Leadership program, featuring courses such as Crossroads: Population and Global Health; Leveraging Big Data for Data-Driven Decision Making; and Healthcare Policy and Law that can help prepare health care leaders to navigate health care decision-making whether locally or globally. Learn more today.