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Creating opportunities in health learning

students at desk
Erica Barbazza, BHSc’11 (MHSc’12) and Kerry Waddell, BHSc’14 candidate (Photo provided)

Not only do 53 member-countries in the European region of the World Health Organization (WHO) benefit from the work of Health Sciences graduate Erica Barbazza, BHSc’11, MHSc’12, but current student Kerry Waddell is gaining career-launching experience in her field under Barbazza’s tutelage.

Barbazza, a consultant in health service delivery, who earned her MSc in international health policy from the London School of Economics, was in need of a student intern recently to help in her department. She put the call out to Western.

Emails started flying, arrangements were made, courses shuffled, paperwork sent and approvals signed. Waddell found herself at UN City, a new green, state-of-the-art building that opened just last spring on the water’s edge in Copenhagen, Denmark, that houses the WHO’s regional office for Europe.

Unlike the bureaucratic pace, which can be glacial-like at times, Waddell’s application date to job start was amazingly quick. She made inquiries in mid-November and flew to Denmark in January to begin.

The fourth-year student says the support she received from both Western and the Faculty of Health Sciences has been “just unbelievable.”

“There was a month-and-a-half where I sent an email a day at least to four different people in that office… just trying to organize things and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it. We’ll take care of it. You’re going.’ ”

Barbazza says that experience mirrors the support she received at Western, of being “completely accommodating.”

“I really stretched the limits in terms of my degree about what it looks like on paper and how I customized it completely… It was the confidence I had knowing that Western could make it happen. That is why we pursued a student from Western.”

Barbazza is a technical officer in Health Services Delivery for WHO’s Europe Region (which doesn’t exactly follow Europe geographically). She acts as a consultant with Ministries of Health internationally and supports their efforts towards the common goal of improved population health outcomes. The positive impact she can help make keeps her motivated to take on the technical challenges faced along the way.

Each of the six WHO regional offices sets its own mandate. The organization has acknowledged the differences between the individual regions globally. They include: African Region, Region of the Americas, South-East Asia Region, European Region, Eastern Mediterranean Region and Western Pacific Region. One big addition to the Europe Region, that the Denmark headquarters maintains a relationship with, is Russia.

“It is unique in terms of the other UN agencies, that kind of decentralized structure. But then we also have, in addition to the regional offices, representation in the different countries. That’s really to make the contact national and the work that we do tailored to a given context. It’s meant to be technical assistance to the individual ministries,” says Barbazza.

“One of our really big programs right now is strengthening the coordination integrations of health services delivery. A lot of the times, the countries know where they want to go but are just missing the process of getting there.”

Barbazza’s department helps member nations by calling on experiences of other countries, and pulling in experts who have worked internationally. She says that helps articulate the process of “so if this is where you are right now and you envision your health improvements down the line this way, we can help you in the strategic process and planning of it.”

With a few months of a four-month internship under her belt, Waddell was able to offer insights of dealing with member countries. “When you have experience in so many other countries that have done different things, it’s taking those experiences and being able to help certain ministries. Like maybe the ministry in Kazakhstan hasn’t been able to implement certain initiatives or doesn’t have the coordinated integrated care that the UK has been able to (implement) or that Ireland has been able to or whoever you’re talking about. So, you can pull on those experiences and pull on those connections that the WHO has to enable that change to happen for that country.”

Essentially, Barbazza says they are trying to share lessons learned, not reinvent the wheel. “Sometimes the practice is applicable in one context (or country) and not another.”

Disease prevention and inoculation programs have been high profile practices of WHO for decades. Each country in the Europe Region has its unique needs and areas that require assistance.

“Through the lens of the health system, you can look at any problems that are surfacing in the different countries. I’ve been working a lot in Ukraine on their TB and HIV (programs) to understand what the situation is, how they work to improve the coordination of those two programs,” says Barbazza. Something she has found interesting in her work is that health ministries really do respect the work of the WHO and reach out for assistance.

“They hold the recommendations (from WHO) in such high regard. So, the challenge on us is to be recommending things that are actionable and not just ‘this is where you are and the best case scenario is far from that.’ We can work in a way that’s more goal-oriented in the short, medium and long term.”

Barbazza will bring back health-care issues from a member country like Tajikistan and help identify priorities. These priorities are evaluated on where the quickest gains can be made. “Then using the technical expertise of the staff here and other brilliant minds that circle around WHO just to get them to weigh in on that, so they have this validated.”

Decisions in member countries on health-care delivery can be influenced by many factors. Available funds often dictate what gets worked on first. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that country context does matter but health systems are fundamentally struggling with the same problems… And those struggles are equally interesting when you’re looking at it in one country or you’re looking at it in 53 member states,” said Waddell.

What Barbazza enjoys about her work with WHO is the relevance of it.

New UN Building in Copenhagen
UN City building in Copenhagen

“I think just knowing that everything you’re doing, it’s all for a country trying to make their (health care) system better. Our part in it is very small in the grand scheme of the politics and funding but you feel that you’re doing something.”

Both have gained a deeper appreciation for international cultures and discovered there really isn’t one “best way” of approaching health-care. Their work environment has also been “an enlightening experience.”

“Most of the people we work with are European with English as their fifth or seventh language. You’re surrounded by so many different languages but more so, so many different cultures. It’s very dynamic. You become so much more culturally aware,” says Barbazza.

“Having that diversity there is really interesting and always makes for good topics of conversation… you’re surrounded by very, very intelligent people. And people who have so many different ideas because of where they’re from, the education they’ve had, and that brings something new (to the work environment),” says Waddell.

Her advice to students and new grads is the “power of connections.” “It’s pretty incredible. But that being said, make sure you’re talking to people. People who are at Western and keeping those connections but in a very sincere and general way.”

Barbazza suggests using the tools you develop in university to help on that career path. “For me from Western I learned how to write. I learned how to read. I was constantly challenged to (improve). As a skillset, I use that every day. But I credit Western for cultivating that. Even if you don’t have direction, you have those tools and go wherever the road takes you. Saturate the experience as much as you can.”

Barbazza is always on the look out for interns. “For us, it’s a great kind of input to come from people that have fresh academic minds.” For more information, please contact the dean’s office at Health Sciences or email Erica at: EST@euro.who.int


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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