Global Health

Working in Global Health

People sometimes have a narrow view of global health defined by the delivery of medical aid following natural disasters, international disease outbreaks, or massive political and economic upheaval. Whilst important, this represents only a fraction of the complexity and diversity of the global health field.

The vast majority of global health work happens quietly in the background, with practitioners diligently tackling some of humanity’s most insidious issues. Projects can involve establishing health policy planning, education, research and the development of effective local and transnational health systems to raise health outcomes.

A diverse mix of skills, knowledge and interests is a valuable asset. Improving health in low income countries often comes with a pressing need to deal with complex social inequities. Poverty, poorly functioning health systems and political exploitation can create major barriers that must be overcome to enable access to healthcare.

Global health workers may be based in or visit low-income countries and perform a wide variety of tasks, from assisting with health policy and resource distribution, managing drug supply chains and working on disease prevention strategies for infections like malaria or tuberculosis. They may be involved in monitoring health services overseas, or delivering education to clinical health staff and foreign health department personnel.

Fundraising and advocacy may be an important part of your role in global health, as you draw attention to particular health needs. Understanding that health inequalities often arise from socioeconomic inequalities means that advocacy for basic human rights becomes a central aspect of every global health practitioners role.

A cutting edge global health practitioner is not focussed on colonial ideas of ‘saving the world’ but rather empowering communities in culturally appropriate ways to become self sufficient. It’s about creating sustainable change in health systems at local, national and international levels. By fortifying global health networks and fostering transnational partnerships, a global health practitioner promotes health justice for all.

Ideal attributes

  • Cultural Sensitivity: Working with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds requires humility and the ability to adapt programs and methods so that they become culturally appropriate.
  • Passion for social justice: Global health occurs at the nexus of biological and social disorder. Practitioners require a strong belief in universal human rights.
  • Innovation: Being able to use sometimes limited available resources and money to generate effective strategies and programs.
  • Patience: Projects in resource-poor nation with complex social and political inequities can move slower than would be expected in Australia.
  • Curiosity: the willingness to learn another language or live in another culture.
  • Organisation: Innovative project design and management is a significant part of global health work.
  • Confidence: this is important in advocacy/fundraising roles. Public speaking and media skills can be important; you can gain on-the-job training in some organisations. Toastmasters clubs or volunteering as a fundraiser are a great way to build confidence and public speaking skills.
  • Self-sufficiency: You may need to take on unexpected responsibilities, especially where resources are tight. Basic budgeting skills can be useful to ensure value for money from suppliers.

Finding the right position for your experience

Global health is an area where practitioners are able to make a tangible difference in the quality of human lives. It provides the chance to network with change makers across the planet as well as a chance to travel extensively and see the world. For these reasons, it is also highly competitive, and a postgraduate qualification such as a Master of Public Health is invaluable. It is practically a requirement for working internationally.

Those entering the global health workforce directly from undergraduate study are advised to look for volunteer positions in relevant local organisations and gain skills and experience before looking for overseas work.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) are an important employer in this space, both internationally and domestically. NGOs such as Red Cross, Oxfam or Medicins sans Frontiers (MSF) administer humanitarian aid and projects designed to improve health outcomes. Public health experts can help them plan and regulate these activities. The World Health Organisation and United Nations also have global reach, although with a stronger emphasis on policy development, systems development and research. Much of their work is office based, with varying numbers of field trips depending on the job. Large philanthropic organisations may employ people with public health skills. Examples are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust.

You may find work or be seconded to local health departments overseas. AusAid is the Australian government department dealing with overseas aid, and for the large part jobs are based in Australia, with some opportunities for travel and overseas postings. Jobs are often focussed on a particular overseas region, country or project.