Promoting health care for the vulnerable in Vietnam

Lan Nguyen

May 12, 2015 — In Hanoi, working for a small nongovernmental organization, Lan Nguyen spent nearly four years trying to improve the lot of people on the fringes. Sex workers. Drug users. People struggling with diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C. They were in and out of prison, dealing with brutality and death, watching loved ones die from overdoses or violence. Nguyen saw how these people suffered and how they dealt with adversity. She saw their resilience.

Nguyen loved her experience at the NGO—called Supporting Community Development Initiatives—where she supported other local organizations in building capacity in areas such as overdose prevention and response, screening and treating hepatitis C, and policy advocacy. She had an undergraduate degree in economics, but felt that without policy analysis skills there was a limit to how much she could do.

After deciding that a master’s program in public health would give her the necessary skills and training, she applied—and won—a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship. That, along with additional funding from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, enabled her to come to Boston in 2013 to study health policy and management at the School. She will graduate in May 2015 with an MPH.

“I’m very lucky to be fully funded,” she said. “Otherwise I never would have been able to afford even part of the tuition.”

She says she chose Harvard Chan because it’s “the best place in the U.S., and probably one of the best places in the world” to learn about health policy and quantitative methods.

A supportive connection

Before coming to the School Nguyen reached out to Nancy Turnbull, senior lecturer on health policy and associate dean for professional education, who provided advice and served as a valuable sounding board. “Talking to her, mostly through emails, is a big part of why I chose this institution,” said Nguyen. “I wouldn’t have imagined that such a large institution as Harvard would have that level of direct support for students. That’s very special, especially for international students.” Turnbull became her academic adviser.

She has high praise both for the courses she’s taken and for the many lectures and seminars given on campus—often daily, and sometimes several times per day—by experts from Harvard and beyond. “I’m in a very privileged position compared to my colleagues at home, so I’m using this opportunity to absorb as much as I can,” Nguyen said. One of Nguyen’s most interesting courses was taught by Joseph Rhatigan, assistant professor in the Department of Global Health and Population, and focused on global health care delivery. She said it offered her and her fellow students exposure to doctors doing “amazing work” all over the world.

“I met physicians and public health practitioners at Partners In Health who work relentlessly to build healthcare infrastructures in resource-poor countries such as Haiti and Lesotho; who went head-on with the deadly Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and Liberia; or who developed the pioneer programs to provide access to tuberculosis treatment in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” Nguyen said.

Lan said that being at Harvard Chan put her in a great position to meet people at the forefront of health care technologies. In the summer of 2014, she learned about Project ECHO, a telehealth model begun in Albuquerque aimed at strengthening the knowledge and practice of clinical care teams in underserved communities with videoconferencing and case-based learning. Lan said she saw this as an excellent model to apply in the context of Vietnam and, as part of her practicum project, returned home in June 2014 to help the Vietnam National Lung Hospital use the model for the treatment of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. With Lan’s facilitation, the hospital successfully launched the first global TB teleECHO clinic in February 2015.

Pay it forward

Nguyen’s passion lies in promoting access to health care for the most vulnerable populations “on as large a scale as possible.” Her career goal is to use the analytical and quantitative skills she learned at Harvard Chan in a position with a research focus, to help shed light on public health issues so that real improvements can be made in people’s lives. She hopes to work for a year anywhere around the globe as part of the Fulbright program’s post-academic training program—which enables Fulbrighters to spend an additional year at a job or internship pertaining to their studies—before returning to her home country of Vietnam.

Before choosing Harvard Chan, Nguyen recalls browsing through the website to read testimonials from international students. Now she wants others around the globe to hear about her experience at the School. “I want to pay it forward,” she said. “This is such a great place to be. People here are at the vanguard of almost everything in public health.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: Emily Cuccarese