Expert insight

Engaging Youth in Global Health

12 November 2015
  • David Neal

Four universities, fifty students, ten months of research and writing now lead to culmination at the annual conference of Polygeia: Students Shaping Global Health, at the Cambridge Union Society. Our key message: motivated and bright young people are not only the global health leaders of the future, but have the desire and ability to improve global health today.

An emphasis on experts and experience in global health is understandable; but there are several important reasons why engaging young people can mobilise valuable resources in the field of global health improvement, and perhaps help solve some major challenges.

We don’t do silos or boxes – young people are seeking joined up solutions

No one is born into a particular team working on a particular issue; barriers to collaboration are progressively built as experience is accrued. At the very beginning of our careers or academic lives, young people have yet to build such high walls and we therefore work exceptionally effectively in cross-disciplinary teams.

Polygeia has this year been commissioned by the Africa All Party Parliamentary Group in the UK to write a report on lessons learned for community engagement from the West Africa Ebola Crisis. Rather than using a single perspective, the team for this project included students studying public health, African studies, medicine and management, ranging in experience from undergraduate to PhD.

As another example, working this summer with the Public Health Laboratory Ivo De Carneri, myself and colleagues looked to providing new perspectives to address old problems. This included research into the effectiveness of antibiotic stewardship on Zanzibar and supporting the development of the organisation’s 5-year strategy for research and organisational development. We explored the scope for ongoing research into traditional problems such as endemic helminthiases and other neglected tropical diseases, and identified new and emerging threats to health, including diabetes. This will help the organisation adapt to cope with the double burden of disease now faced.

We understand the power of connecting – young people want to see solutions applying technology with emotional intelligence

The pace at which technology is developing means that even “older” younger people, such as myself at the age of 24, can feel like we have a less comprehensive grasp of the latest developments than younger peers. Young people are in a strong position to work collaboratively with health experts in understanding and maximising the potential applications for eHealth, for big data and for the ways that technology can connect people, ideas and progress.

eHealth is a theme we explored as part of our ongoing series of guest blogs for IFPMA, exploring health partnerships such as the mVaccination programme in Mozambique to help parents remain up-to-date with their child’s vaccination schedule, and large-scale public-private partnerships using mobile technology to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce the global burden of chronic diseases.
Not only is there a team working on eHealth for Polygeia this year, other Polygeia teams have also been exploring the power of technology in this regard. For example, our mental health team have been exploring the use of mobile apps for mental health and wellness, and how these might be made available in low resource settings.

Tomorrow, we’ll be the ones on the front line – young people want to learn through experience

Whilst Polygeia advocates strongly that young people have the power to change the face of global health today, it is still true that young people will go on to be the health leaders of the future. This is especially important as we are faced with a global shortage of healthcare workers and people going into training to be healthcare professionals.

This is why we are keen to have the opportunity to partner with established organisations in global health, such as working together with IFPMA, CRC Press and the BMJ in preparation for our annual conference. Organisations who engage young people improve the skills and knowledge base of tomorrow’s leaders and shape our ability to address the great challenges of tomorrow.


IFPMA is proud to support Polygeia’s annual conference, taking place on Saturday 14th November at the Cambridge Union Society.


  • David Neal