Students bring inspiration, innovative solutions to public health problems

Lightbulb in hand

December 21, 2022 – Solving public health challenges with the help of technological or other innovations, or by launching new ventures, can have a big impact. At Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, there’s a student organization devoted to supporting students interested in these avenues—but who may be unsure how to go about it.

The Public Health Innovation x Technology Student Forum (PHIT), founded six years ago, has become the largest student-led organization on campus, with 119 members.

The past few years have witnessed tremendous new challenges in public health, and yet often health care relies on techniques developed in prior decades, according to Rick Siegrist, senior lecturer on health care management and PHIT faculty adviser. “Whether it’s climate change or inequity in the delivery of health care, what we’ve been doing in the past hasn’t always worked,” he said. “Why can’t we put our minds together and come up with some other approaches that may be better?”

PHIT members
From top: PHIT president Ian Speers, vice president Audrey Nguyen, member Oana Geambasu, and incoming president Pauline Nuth

Toward that end, PHIT creates virtual and in-person opportunities for students to get together for inspiration and discussion about new ideas. Ian Speers, MPH ’23, the group’s president, who leads PHIT along with vice president Audrey Nguyen, MPH ’23, and a highly involved board of four other students, said, “We strive to create an interactive and welcoming community where students can come to learn and discuss different innovations and technologies that impact public health. We also try to mitigate some of the feelings of being overwhelmed or confused when people are first trying to get into those fields, especially when they are new to people. People use the word ‘innovation’ all the time, but to learn what it might actually look and feel like to engage with it is hard to pin down and best learned through practice and real-world examples.”

Harvard Chan School offers courses in innovation, including some taught by Siegrist, but PHIT offers a low-stress and no-commitment way for students to dip their toes into the entrepreneurial space. “It is a bridge,” said Oana Geambasu, MPH ’22, a research assistant to Siegrist and PHIT member. “Students are so eager to engage, but sometimes they are reluctant because they don’t know exactly what to choose to do.”

Over the past year, the group sponsored events that showcased examples of public health innovations. One was a presentation by MakerHealth, a startup from MIT that offers tools for clinicians to create and improve medical equipment to enhance patient care. Another event featured experts from Ariadne Labs discussing their efforts to create and launch an app for TeamBirth, a platform that enables patients, healthcare providers, and other caregivers to make shared decisions around delivery.

“We try to keep things very hands-on and practical and not get caught up in theory,” said Siegrist. “PHIT offers some wonderful opportunities to connect with outside organizations and hear speakers talk on topics [the students] wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.”

The group also maintains a presence through social media sites and groups to encourage discussion and networking among members. In April 2019, PHIT sponsored a hackathon, bringing more than 100 participants from across Harvard to work on innovative solutions to public health problems—and the group hopes to host another in the future.

PHIT members have launched a number of ventures over the years, including Speers’ own Pacto Medical, a company that creates innovative medical devices and supplies, such as a pre-filled syringe that is more compact and has a smaller packaging footprint than other similar syringes, in order to save costs, reduce environmental impact, and expand access to this type of product. ACU Innovation and Consulting, a company founded by past PHIT co-president Antón Castellanos Usigli, DrPH ’23, helps healthcare organizations improve their services, systems, and patient experiences. Incoming PHIT president Pauline Nuth, DrPH ’25, is currently working on a social enterprise called Tiny Catalyst to build a digital health network across the U.S. to empower volunteers to work on public health and social impact issues. Another venture called SideStreet, begun by PHIT members Saad Soroya and Calvin Harjono, both MPH ’23, aims to improve community-based health care by developing digital tools to pair patients with community health workers who are equipped with information on how to deliver culturally sensitive care.

Geambasu attributes PHIT’s popularity to the desire many students have to achieve real-world impact from their studies. She said, “They might say, I wanted to go into policy or government, but then I realized if I wanted to have a really big impact in my lifetime I need to go into tech and entrepreneurship because that’s the way you will advance health care as fast as possible and have real-life impact.”

Michael Blanding

Feature photo: iStock

PHIT member photos courtesy Ian Speers