What is Global Health and Why Does it Matter?

Big Question: What is global health, and how do its methods and concepts help us better support ourselves and others around the world?

Time Commitment: 40 minutes

Watch and Reflect:

This video from Thailand’s Thammasat University refers to global health as “an area for study, research, and practice that places a priority on improving health and achieving health equity for all people worldwide.” Begin with its (3 and a half minute) overview:

Reflection Question: The video narrator says, “Global health thinks about the entire human population as one global community.” What are the strengths in this orientation – and what are the dangers?

Diving In, Part 1: Global Health

In the globally prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, several researchers and a consortium banded together in the 2009 article, Towards a Common Definition of Global Health. This excerpt offers part of their response,

“What is global? Must a health crisis cross national borders to be deemed a global health issue? We should not restrict global health to health-related issues that literally cross international borders. Rather, in this context, global refers to any health issue that concerns many countries or is affected by transnational determinants, such as climate change or urbanisation, or solutions, such as polio eradication. Epidemic infectious diseases such as dengue, influenza A (H5N1), and HIV infection are clearly global. But global health should also address tobacco control, micronutrient deficiencies, obesity, injury prevention, migrant-worker health, and migration of health workers. The global in global health refers to the scope of problems, not their location. Thus—like public health but unlike international health—global health can focus on domestic health disparities as well as cross-border issues. Global health also incorporates the training and distribution of the health-care workforce in a manner that goes beyond the capacity-building interest of public health.”

From the video and article above we can see that global health aligns with the concerns of global citizenship or cosmopolitanism, in that a central concern is with the obligations we owe one another to improve health and health equity (for and with one another). As indicated in the intro video above, global health considers underlying issues that affect health. Underlying factors are often referred to as social determinants of health.

Diving In, Part 2: Social Determinants of Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes. These conditions are known as social determinants of health (SDOH).”

View this video from Dr. Ranil Appuhamy, Founder and Principal Consultant at the Public Health Academy, for a six and a half-minute overview of social determinants of health.

Diving In, Part 3: Global Health, Structural and Cultural Violence, and Cultural Humility

As you can see through the videos and definitions shared above, global health involves inquiry that, in part, encourages us to look at how structures constrain or expand human longevity and flourishing. All too frequently, cultural and structural violences prevent us from seeing how our assumptions about how “the way things are” prevent us from building healthier, more resilient communities.

In a December 2019 op-ed written for NPR’s Goats and Soda, Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine resident in Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, challenged the field of global health to better understand the historical injustices in which it is embedded:

“Today, the field of “global health” strives to create equitable and just relationships between wealthy and impoverished regions, places and peoples. But it is still a field with markedly unequal power dynamics: racism, classism and many of the residual exploitations of a terrible colonial past. I fear that this point often goes missed or ignored, possibly because we are subconsciously or consciously engaged in a neocolonial narrative in which wealthy people are “saving” poor people even as they build their own careers.”

Read Dr. Karan’s whole op-ed here. (1,870 words / 15 minutes).

Page Completion – Outcomes:

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • Global Health
  • Social Determinants of Health

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Next: How do we know whether we make progress? An introduction to SDGs

Citation for this page: Young, R., Evert, J. & Toms, C. (2020). What is global health and why does it matter? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from http://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/what-is-global-health/


Karan, A. (2019, December 30). Opinion: It’s Time To End The Colonial Mindset In Global Health. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from https://choice.npr.org/index.html?origin=https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/12/30/784392315/opinion-its-time-to-end-the-colonial-mindset-in-global-health

Koplan, J. P., Bond, T. C., Merson, M. H., Reddy, K. S., Rodriguez, M. H., Sewankambo, N. K., & Wasserheit, J. N. (2009). Towards a common definition of global health. The Lancet373(9679), 1993–1995. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(09)60332-9

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Social Determinants of Health | CDC. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/socialdeterminants/index.htm

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

Let’s Learn Public Health. (2017, June 25). Social Determinants of Health – an introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PH4JYfF4Ns&feature=emb_logo

MinuteVideos. (2016, January 23). What is Global Health? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRyj6htVvUI&feature=emb_logo