A theater major moves on to the global health stage

Todd Lewis
Todd Lewis

May 23, 2017—Soon after he left his volunteer job at Mercy Children’s Home in Togo, West Africa, Todd Lewis, SM ’17, had a moment of clarity. Then an undergraduate theater major at the University of North Carolina, he had spent the summer of 2011 teaching language classes and leading activities for the orphans, but he realized that none of his efforts would make a significant difference toward improving their lives. So he looked for a way to do more—and found public health.

Lewis will graduate this month from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with a master’s degree in global health and population, and start PhD studies this fall. Down the road, he hopes to launch an academic career conducting research to help governments in low- and middle-income countries improve their health systems.

“In the past few years, there has been a big push in global health for universal coverage. But we have no idea about the quality of care many people around the world are receiving once they get access,” Lewis said. “If the services aren’t high quality, are we really serving people like we think we are? And are we focusing on the elements of care and delivery that are most important to patients?”

These questions, first posed to Lewis by Margaret Kruk, associate professor of global health, have formed a focus for his research that he did not anticipate when he began his degree. “It’s one of those insights that’s powerful, because it’s so simple and overlooked,” he said. “That’s what happens at this School. You come here, you talk to some brilliant people in the field, and boom, your eyes are opened.”

Lewis is part of a research team led by Kruk for the Lancet Global Health Commission on High Quality Health Systems in the Sustainable Development Goals Era. The Commission aims to define measures of quality in low- and middle-income health systems and to identify structural approaches to improvement. Lewis attended the Commission’s first meeting, held in Boston in March 2017, and relished the opportunity to pose questions to experts from around the world.

Paying it forward

Before he came to the School, Lewis spent several years as a research analyst looking at health care leadership and reform, interviewing chief medical officers and other physician executives for their insights on best practices. Although the experience built up his qualitative research skills, the subject matter was too far removed from public health, he said. So he decided to apply to Harvard Chan School to gain new quantitative research skills and to learn methods for evaluating the success of public health programs.

At the School, he’s been putting these skills to use working with Kruk in the Health System Quality and Responsiveness Lab. His project involves analyzing the accuracy of pneumonia diagnoses of children in Malawi. He also worked with Ariadne Labs on its primary care research team, where he co-authored three papers for the World Health Organization and World Bank on health reform in China.

Although Lewis’s interests have evolved since his undergraduate experience in the theater—which he capped by writing a play for his thesis that explored access to health care in the U.S.—he’s carried with him a passion for communicating ideas. After serving as a teaching assistant at Harvard Chan School this year, Lewis fell in love with helping students learn, and he hopes to ultimately pay forward the mentorship he received.

“I think it’s a wide open field for Todd,” Kruk said. “He really has a very nice combination of rigorous intellect, creativity, and passion. And there’s also a humility about the way that he approaches problems. He doesn’t just jump in with his ideas until he’s thought them through.” She said those were valuable traits for a career in global health, a field where establishing respectful partnerships across cultures is key.

Lewis credits the School with bringing out his best. “Everyone here has such indefatigable energy to solve whatever problem they are focused on,” he said. “It’s in everything we do here, and I’ll take that with me.”

Amy Roeder

Photo: Sarah Sholes