The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the highest decision making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), annually gathering together member states, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society groups to discuss global health in the global health capital, Geneva, Switzerland. IFMSA being a Non-State Actor in official relations with WHO, our Federation is invited to send a delegation of young global health enthusiasts: e.g. medical, dentistry, veterinary and pharmaceutical students, to the WHA.
16.–20. of May 2018, for the 6th time, IFMSA organized a Youth Pre-World Health Assembly Workshop (PreWHA) for the delegation of over 50 students, to prepare the participants in the best possible way for the 71st World Health Assembly: 4 days full of keynote speaker lectures, discussion panels and interactive streams on different topics: AntiMicrobial Resistance (AMR), Universal Health Coverage (UHC), Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and Discrimination in Healthcare.
Many medical students chose this field to do something meaningful and challenging, to help people, cure diseases and save lives. One might say this is an idealistic and noble vision of medical practice, but doesn’t often correspond to reality. Medical students can be shaken when they come to realise that many patients’ diseases cannot be cured nor properly treated. More importantly, many of these diseases are due to or worsened by detrimental lifestyles, and socioeconomical or environmental factors: unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco use, poor education, financial issues, lack of primary health care and resources… And this creates demand for health governance beyond clinical medicine.
Global Health: What’s in it for students?
PreWHA started with a cozy opening dinner in the evening of the arrival day. Many hugs were exchanged as how are you’s and nice to meet you’s echoed at Nomades, the Moroccan-Lebanese restaurant’s hall, when delegates from all around the world gathered together.
”Medical education aims at training medical doctors to diagnose and treat diseases. We are called ’healthcare’ professionals, even though ’disease care’ might be more suitable of a term”, Dr. Gaudenz Silberschmidt, the Director of Coordinated Resource Mobilisation at WHO, stated during his keynote speech at the opening dinner. Sharing about his journey from medical school to working for WHO, he highlighted how we, as future medical professionals, need to recognize the perspective of public and global health, no matter if we were becoming clinical practitioners or global health advocates, or both. Dr. Silberschmidt reminded us that health in modern and global context is not exclusively physicians’ concern and should not be dominated by us, but rather requires multidisciplinary collaboration and governance.
Global health allows us to emphasize the focus on the preventive component of healthcare, through diplomacy, advocacy, policies and global decision making not only in matters of health but also e.g. economy, education, politics and environment. Global health perspective is more all-encompassing, which makes it so crucial and important. Moreover, the World Health Assembly provides an arena for multidisciplinary approaches and different perspectives to be brought together for solving issues that are common and shared everywhere on the globe. IFMSA offers students from various fields of healthcare a unique opportunity to participate the WHA and represent the voice of youth on that arena.
PreWHA: first working day
Dr. Michaela Told of Global Health Centre, Graduate Institute kicked off the 1st day with an interactive session that helped IFMSA delegates define the facets of diplomacy and explore the vast landscape of global health by posing questions like “Is health a ‘wicked’ problem?” and “When did global health diplomacy start?” Dr. Told left the delegates with some wise words of advice: “Health is ultimately a political choice. If you want to affect change, you need to meet with heads of state.”
Next up, Dr. Ruediger Krech, gave a talk on what WHO’s Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and Health Systems Department does to achieve UHC. Delegates were taught that health was a major economic driver in many countries and about the importance of investing in health systems to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and harnessing new technologies to achieve UHC.
We were then visited by Diah Saminarsih (Advisor on Gender and Youth to the Director-General, WHO) who spoke about meaningful youth and gender participation in global health and the WHO. Since policy from WHO doesn’t trickle down from headquarters, delegates learned about the importance of why global policy first and foremost needs a country-centered approach with a focus on youth engagement in health.
Bringing the voice of Youth to the Global Health Arena – but is it heard?
56 incredible and motivated students from 32 different countries of all regions, 41 inspirational speakers, 4 packed days and over 50 hours of work, a well-organized schedule, eco-friendly meals, proper coffee breaks and a charming venue in sunny Geneva: all that makes preWHA an excellent event.
The influence of the Youth PreWHA goes way beyond the event: Networking with and learning from global health professionals and other students who share your passion are some of the core benefits of the event. Learning from senior colleagues sharing about their experiences is inspirational beyond anything, because they give us living examples of global health career paths.
As representatives of IFMSA, being active, being present and being prepared to give our stance on global health matters already proves our awareness, our enthusiasm and our eagerness to influence the decision-making and willingness to be heard. Furthermore, it proves that we are serious and should taken seriously, not only by WHO but also by other actors in the field. The advocacy efforts we do today at WHA might not be visible tomorrow, but already during the 6-year history of Youth Pre-WHA Workshops, the voice of youth has become more and more appreciated. Consequently, it is clear that the more we participate and get involved, the louder we are and the more we will be heard, not only as the voice of the youth but also as the voice of the future.
Saana Mäenpää (Finland); IFMSA Delegate to the 71st WHA; Vice-President for External Affairs of the Finnish Medical Students’ International Committee (FiMSIC)
Brian Wong (Canada); IFMSA Delegate to the 71st WHA; PhD Candidate in Cardiovascular Science, UCL
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