Inaugural HSPH Leadership Fellows share real-world public health policymaking expertise

Ann Veneman

Ann Veneman

April 24, 2012

To tackle a big public health issue—maternal mortality, for example—it takes more than simply focusing on how women fare during childbirth. It’s also important to think about maternal nutrition. About how different cultures regard women. About women’s educational levels. About many interrelated factors, noted Ann Veneman, a Senior Leadership Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

Veneman, former executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), spent a week at the School in late February, officially inaugurating a new program to connect students and faculty to high-level policy makers. Prior to her five years at UNICEF (2005-10), Veneman spent four years as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the first woman to hold that position.

A second Senior Leadership Fellow this spring is K. Sujatha Rao, MPA ’90, most recently Union Secretary in the Indian government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. On campus for three months, Rao—who was a Takemi Fellow for International Health at HSPH in 2001-02—has been involved with health care improvement for nearly two decades.

The Senior Leadership Fellows program, part of the Division of Policy Translation and Leadership Development, is a bridge from the world of policymaking to the world of academia. Leaders who have recently served in high-level positions in government, nonprofits, and journalism spend time at the School to share their expertise. They meet with students, teach seminars, collaborate with academic colleagues, and participate in the Division’s webcast series, “Decision-Making: Voices from the Field.”

“The major goal of the Fellows program is to help students understand how decision-making happens,” said Richard L. Menschel Professor of Public Health Robert Blendon, who is senior associate dean and director of the Division.

Big picture view crucial

Veneman said one of her key messages to students was the importance of taking a big-picture view of complex public health issues. Currently examining ways to fight obesity—with the Washington, D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center—Veneman said there are numerous ideas to consider beyond counseling people to eat sensibly and exercise. Should doctors focus more on improving their patients’ nutrition? What can businesses do—or what should they do—to help their employees maintain a healthy weight?

“All of these are the kinds of public health, public policy, or business-related issues we consider,” Veneman explained.

See Veneman’s remarks to students in Voices from the Field webcast.

Politics plays a role

K. Sujatha Rao

Rao, who is teaching an eight-week course on “Leading Health Systems Improvement in India: Lessons for the Future,” is using examples from her own experience to illustrate the sometimes tricky politics of health care policy change. She recalled the challenge of trying to fight HIV/AIDS in India when homosexuality was considered a criminal offense. Because of the law, homosexuals were mistrustful of government officials and unlikely to work with them to help limit the disease’s spread, Rao said, When she had a chance to help fight the anti-homosexuality law, she did. In 2006, as head of the India health ministry’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO), she filed an affidavit in support of a court challenge to the law by the Naz Foundation, an NGO that had originally challenged the law five years earlier.

After years of legal maneuverings—and with the support of NACO—the law was finally overturned in 2009. “That provided a huge boost of confidence among the homosexual community that they could trust me, and therefore NACO,” said Rao.

Rao said that teaching about health systems improvement in India has given her a new perspective on events in which she played an integral role. “I’ve been able to take a step back and see the events in a different way, like one would look at a chess board,” she said. She added, “I have found the students reflective and thoughtful, even as they grapple to understand the functioning of a complex health system.”

Funding for the Gro Harlem Brundtland Senior Leadership Fellow (Rao) comes from the Norwegian Knowledge Center for the Health Services. Richard L. Menschel provided funding for the Richard L. and Ronay A. Menschel Senior Leadership Fellow (Veneman).

–Karen Feldscher

photos: Aubrey LaMedica