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Anubhav and Arunika Agarwal

Helping ‘the poorest of the poor’

June 23, 2014 — Anubhav and Arunika Agarwal share more than a marriage. Both earned MBAs focused on health management in their home country of India. Both worked in India and Afghanistan on health improvement projects. And both are about to graduate with master of public health degrees from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

But even as each earns an MPH in global health, they have focused coursework in different areas—Anubhav on quantitative methods, Arunika on health economics—so that their knowledge and skill sets will be complementary. That strategy has helped them get the most out of their HSPH educations. “He can tell me what he has learned and I can tell him what I have learned,” said Arunika. “We have built on our partnership.”

A house is not a home

Anubhav literally grew up in a hospital. His father, a critical care physician, ran a private hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India and the family’s residence was on the top floor. That unique situation enabled Anubhav to see how well—or poorly—the hospital functioned. He came to understand that “sometimes it’s the organization and administration of health services, not medical science, that plays the key role in improving a health outcome or saving someone’s life.”

He planned to get a degree in hospital management, then take over administration of the hospital from his father. But while a student at the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR), he became exposed to new subjects—epidemiology, health economics, demography, research methods—that sparked his interest in public health.

Meeting of minds

Arunika was already an MBA student at a different school when she met Anubhav. After seeing for herself some of the management challenges at Anubhav’s father’s hospital, she too decided to get a degree in health management at IIHMR.

After their 2009 marriage, they both worked in Afghanistan for several years. Anubhav helped with management and data analysis for various health improvement projects run by IIHMR and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Arunika did similar work, first for an Afghan nongovernmental organization, then for Johns Hopkins’ Afghanistan Country Office. Seeing public health experts in action, they both came to the same conclusion: They needed more education to be as effective as possible in improving population health on a large scale.

“I couldn’t have asked for more”

Both Anubhav and Arunika cite the HSPH course “Foundations of Global Health and Population,” taught by David Bloom, as enormously helpful. “It was a comprehensive discussion of what is happening in global health, everywhere,” said Anubhav. “We used to digest news items every morning in class and discuss and critically analyze them in detail. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Also valuable was “Finance and Delivery of Health in Developing Countries,” taught by Peter Berman and featuring guest speakers such as William Hsiao and Rifat Atun. “The instructors were so knowledgeable,” said Anubhav. “When they talked, they didn’t look at their notes or their slides. They spoke from their minds and from what they have done. As a student, you’re learning what they’ve learned over decades.”

Lifelong learning

After graduation, Arunika will stay in Boston to continue work she began on practicum at HSPH—helping Bloom on a longitudinal study of aging in India. Anubhav is in Washington, D.C., consulting with the World Bank at its headquarters. Both hope to go on to earn doctorates in public health and, eventually, to return to their home country.

“We’d like to help improve policies in India so that quality health care reaches the poorest of the poor,” said Anubhav. Added Arunika, “We have a deep interest in working in other developing countries as well, such as Afghanistan and countries in Africa.”

Said Anubhav, ‘There is so much to learn and contribute in public health. I don’t think even a lifetime is enough.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: Emily Cuccarese