Health Conference

Global Health Conference 2012

This year, we had 18 students from Princeton attend the health conference through funding provided by Grand Health Challenges. Here are their stories:

Pooja Pendri ’14
Lack of Eyecare in Rural Ghana

Cataract backlog is a huge problem in Africa. Unite For Sight aims to tackle this problem, and since I will be volunteering in Ghana this summer with Unite For Sight, the talks by Drs. Wanye and Baah were especially interesting to me.

The statistics for Ghana are unbelievable. The country has a population of 24 million people. Over 1% (more than    240,000 people) of the population is blind. 60-80% of these cases are preventable, with issues like cataracts.

Yet, as of April 21, 2012, there were only 55 ophthalmologists in the entire country. 48 ophthalmologists live in urban areas, where only 30 percent of the nation’s population lives. For the other 70% of the population, there are 7 ophthalmologists. This unequal distribution of eye care service is a major problem in Ghana.

In addition, many doctors are underperforming. The average number of surgeries per ophthalmologist is only 200 per year. Dr. Baah suggested that underperformance might be due to the fact that doctors get paid regardless of their performance. Brain drain is another problem in bringing health care to rural areas. Many of the nurses that are trained in rural areas move to more developed areas where there are more job opportunities.

Human resources are just one barrier to providing eye surgeries to cure preventable eye diseases in Ghana. Many Ghanaians have misconceptions about eye surgery. Some believe that the doctor has the take the eye out of its socket, fix it, and re-insert it. Others believe eye problems run in the family and accept the condition. In place of surgery, some seek treatment from native doctors. Dr. Wanye mentioned that traditional medicine often led to even worse problems, such as a melted cornea.

There are barriers even for those who want surgery. Most can’t afford to pay for transportation, let alone the cost of the surgery. Since there are so few eye clinics in the country, distance is a significant barrier. Also, blind patients need and escort who can bring them to get the surgery. With all of these barriers to surgery, organizations like Unite For Sight have a lot of work to do.

Nevertheless, the doctors offered some hope. Dr. Wanye’s plan centered on education. He mentioned implementing health education in schools as well as starting community health education and screening programs. For example, kids need to learn hygiene practices such as washing their faces. In addition, Dr. Wanye has a plan for training school teachers to examine students’ vision. Often kids do poorly in school and drop out because they can’t read the board. By training teachers to administer visual acuity screenings, we can catch myopia early on and provide school children with corrective glasses.

Ultimately, however, poverty is the underlying issue that leads to preventable eye diseases and many other illnesses. Our goal needs to be to remove the environmental risks that sustain the transmission of infection. The community has to be aware of the problems and motivated to strive for change.

 Christine Blauvelt ‘12

 DUMA: Expanding Social Enterprises

I was so fortunate for the opportunity to attend the 2012 Unite for Sight Conference.  I had the chance to hear from and speak to various experts in the field, who shared their insights on everything from health care systems to marketing.  The conference was particularly useful as I worked to develop a social enterprise called DUMA that I am working on with another senior at Princeton.

DUMA is a SMS-based job networking service for the informal sector of Kenya and other emerging markets.  The service operates as follows: Through an online registration, job seekers list their skills, employers list their hiring criteria, and all users provide their top 10 contacts. This creates a web of social connections between friends of friends of friends that simultaneously links employers to employees who fit their criteria. When an employer has a job opening, he or she sends a text message to DUMA to specify the available position. Our software then finds employees with the closest matching job skills and social contacts, and then sends them a text message with the employer’s contact information. A post-job rating system serves as a quality control mechanism.

As I plan for the launch of DUMA in September 2012, the Unite for Sight conference presented me with a wonderful opportunity to get advice to refine the business plan.  For example, I attended a session on marketing which taught various ways of attracting donor funding.  The speaker had the following lessons to share:

  • Emotion trumps logic
  • Powerful stories are the answer
  • Explain how you used the last $100 of funding to get the next $100
  • Give others the tools to tell their story about you
  • Not everyone cares, but someone does, and they know others that might care too

I also attended a talk about taking social enterprises to scale.  The speakers shared the following lessons:

  • If there is no competition, there is no market
  • We need to ask whether the intervention is producing outcomes, not just outputs.  This is the difference between how many products are sold versus how lives are changed.
  • You need to understand both the positives and negatives of interventions.  Maximize and enhance positives and mitigate negatives.
  • You have to be able to clearly demonstrate and articulate your value proposition for people at the bottom of the pyramid.

Finally, on the last day of the conference, the DUMA team actually had the opportunity to pitch its ideas.  We were chosen to speak in a session on social enterprises working to address unemployment and economic development.  We met some great people, who asked very relevant and important questions about our business model, and who reminded us of the importance of having the “brains of a business and the heart of a humanitarian.”


  Edwin Carbajal ’14

  Eyecare in Honduras 



The “Effective Outreach Models in Honduras” by Eduardo Flores warmed my heart. As a native of Honduras, I             understood Dr. Flores’s work. Honduras, being one of the poorest countries with 80% of the people under the poverty line, needs as much help as possible. Dr. Flores’s concerns as well as his impetus to aid the people inspired me to go back some day and help my community in any way possible. Honduras is a country with 8 million people and only 80 eye doctors. The barriers that Dr. Flores has to work with include the long distance travel to the clinic, the lack of money, and the fear of what it entails to receive eye surgery. He has developed an outreach program that include moving the resources to the field, training volunteers, and using the facilities available to help with transportation and accommodations. He wants to show the volunteers and the staff the importance of helping the people and the impact it has on the country. They are developing comprehensive eye exams and working as efficiently as possible. Dr. Flores and the team serve as wonderful role models and have shown how much of a difference we can make on the world by simply giving up some of our time.

Alejandro Van Zandt-Escobar

Simple Solutions: Water and Sanitation

At the 2012 Unite for Sight conference, I had the opportunity to see a lot of social venture pitches addressing a variety of issues. These were followed by audience feedback that I found very enlightening and overall I thought that these sessions exposed me to a lot of brilliant ideas that are very encouraging. I came to this conference as someone who recently discovered the concept of “social entrepreneurship”, and I am particularly interested in exploring strategies for so-called international development outside of the non-profit sector.

A session that struck me the most was one on water and sanitation. This is obviously a huge and complex issue (as we were reminded several times, 2.5 billion people in the world lack access to clean drinking water), but a common trend that I noticed throughout the session was an emphasis on the simplicity of the solutions. Keeping designs as simple as possible reduces the costs of manufacturing and maintenance, and also helps introduce products rapidly and effectively – a water purification system is not very useful if no one understands how to use it. One idea which was pitched is the SODIS system (“Solar Water Disinfection”), which works by filling clear plastic bottles with water and putting them in contact with direct sunlight for at least 6 hours. Surprisingly, the UV rays kill 99% of bacteria and viruses. However, this alone raises an issue: the users do not always trust that the water is clean, as there is no clear indicator that the process has been completed. SODIS therefore decided to combine the idea with a sensor that is strapped to one of the several bottles being disinfected, which indicates when it has received enough sunlight for the water to be clean, enabling the user to know at what point they can drink it. This has another, indirect, advantage: it legitimizes the system, helping to convince users that the system really does work in a way that telling them to simply put their plastic bottles in the sun and wait for a day does not. It adds the glamor of “technology” to an otherwise unsophisticated system.

This is only one of the many ideas that I saw presented during the conference and I think that it characterizes two ideas that are crucial to the social entrepreneurship sector: first, simplicity is key, and second, it is crucial to take the perspective of the user into account. Generally, it was very encouraging to hear so many brilliant ideas aimed at solving some of the world’s most important problems.

Global Health Conference 2011

April 15-16, 2011

7 of the 8 Princeton students who attended the UFS conference- for the weekend, we stayed in the guest house shown behind us

Eight Princeton students attended the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale this past weekend, which featured speakers ranging from practicing physicians, NGO founders, CEOs and CTOs, teachers, medical students, and even undergrads! The trip was funded by Grand Health Challenges and the participants would like to share their stories with you, in the hopes that you will be inspired and motivated to take an interest in global health and join Unite for Sight’s cause.

Emily Trautner ’11

The Global Health and Innovation Conference in New Haven April 15-16 drew a large range of participants, and was more collaborative and interactive than I had expected. I was most surprised by the small scale of many of the participating companies; many companies had less than twenty employees! In the summer of 2011 I worked for The Global Fund, so my conception of global health was on the macro scale and this conference allowed me to see the smaller start-up side of global health.

One of the most striking presentations of the weekend was given by Ken Cook, a keynote speaker on Sunday.  As the third keynote presentation of the morning, he had a tough job of keeping the audience engaged after the previous speaker had given a rather dry talk. Cook spoke about Global Health and Social Media, and represented a marked deviation from the other presentations. He started by greeting the audience, and waiting for a greeting in return before he began his presentation. As he began his talk he said “tell your story like the most important person in the world is sitting in your audience, because he just might be,” and he followed his own advice. His slides were captivating and he told a compelling story about the high prevalence of industrial chemicals in the bodies of people today. He told the story interweaving his own story and showing how he had promoted his cause through social media. Although I found his particular cause less compelling than the other causes presented during the morning, after the talk everyone in the lecture hall was discussing his presentation and had seemingly forgotten about the previous two talks. He clearly conveyed his point: even if you have the most compelling and important cause in the world, it does not matter unless you can convey that to your listeners and potential supporters. Global health is very much about winning hearts and minds so crafting a directed and relevant message is essential to receiving funding, which is in turn necessary for health victories. This was an aspect of global health I had not considered fully before and I will certainly take this into my work in global health in the future!

Shirley Gao ’13

A particular topic of interest to me concerns the measure of success: how do we know  when our organization has succeeded in reaching our goals? How can we track our  progress? What metrics do we look at to accurately convey what we have done, and  where we still need to go?
Answers to these questions came in the form of one of the Saturday morning discussions, titled appropriated “What Is Impact?” It seemed that all the people who spike focused on very scientific, evidence based and goal driven processes in order to produce change. Becca Miller from VillageReach talked about how one must design and articulate clearly your organization’s model of change in order to effectively scale up your global health intervention. This is especially true when you, as a global health worker, must interact with policymakers who require detailed studies and research before they commit any funds to your cause. Gavin Yamey, the last speaker, mentioned how he is hoping to bridge that gap between researchers producing evidence and policymakers who can implement macro scale projects to fundamentally shift society in a more positive direction. His company, “Evidence to Policy Initiative,” is definitely worth checking out.

I found this session presented an interesting juxtaposition with another one titled “Social Media and Inspiring Action.” While I found the speakers much more engaging in this latter workshop, simply because they work in entertainment and know how to tell a good story, their message focused on tapping into people’s emotions in order to affect change. While a few acknowledged that facts and evidence are important factors to convince someone to join a cause, they emphasized appealing to people’s sense of empathy and compassion.

On a more macro level, the Unite for Sight Conference helped me understand that there are many paths to global health. While I’ve known for a few years that I want to pursue public health as an area of research and possibly career path, I am still unsure as to where I can make the most impact and what I would enjoy doing the most. The conference speakers all approached global health from a variety of angles, and many even integrated many perspectives: one woman had a law degree and was pursuing her M.D., while another student I met enrolled in a joint M.P.H. and M.B.A. track. Meeting the variety of people at the conference renewed my confidence and commitment to entering the global health field.

 Danielle Kutasov ’12

Last weekend, I attended the Unite For Sight Global Health and Innovation  Conference in New Haven. While so many of the people and organizations  represented at the conference were truly inspiring, I was especially intrigued by a  few speakers who discussed the often neglected realities of aid to developing    countries, and especially the obstacles to making aid effective and sustainable. In her presentation, Jennifer Staple-Clark (the Founder and CEO of Unite For Sight) emphasized the difference between outputs and outcomes in development work. It is possible that thousands of malaria nets are being distributed, but then they are being used as fishing nets, soccer goal posts, or to cover food. It is absolutely essential to evaluate the on-the-ground impact of aid and take into account the local obstacles to the implementation of any solution.

This idea was a common thread throughout the conference, but it was especially important in the presentations on emergency humanitarian intervention and assistance. In a session entitled “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: Global Health Ethics”, I learned about the complex ethical issues involved in providing medical care in response to natural disasters in third world countries. In most cases, the intentions of volunteers are good, but there tends to be a lack of preparation, accountability, and consideration of local capabilities. One speaker even mentioned doctors showing up to help after a disaster with only a stethoscope, no clothes, food, shelter, or vital medicines. Not only would doctors and volunteers this unprepared not be that much help, they could be more of a burden than an asset, as they would consume scarce local resources that should be used in the recovery and rehabilitation of the community. The field of biomedical ethics is a fascinating one, and I will be sure to focus on ethical and practical considerations, both long- and short-term, in my study of global health in the future.

 Deesha Sarma ’13

The Unite for Sight conference was a valuable experience that allowed me to gain a better  understanding of the current developments in global health and how I can someday make a  difference in this field. The conference fostered a dynamic , interactive environment, with  attendees ranging from social entrepreneurs and ER doctors to medical school faculty and  undergraduate students like myself, and we had the opportunity to not only hear from  leaders in the field but interact with them as well.

One speaker that I found particularly enlightening was Dr. Sonia Sachs, Director of Nutrition at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She spoke about the Millennium Villages Project, a joint venture between the Earth Institute and the UN Development Program that aims to lift the poorest communities out of extreme poverty and improve their access to clean water, basic healthcare, and proper nutrition by 2015. Dr. Sachs explained how the project, encompassing villages in countries throughout Africa including Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya, incorporates interventions and partnerships to transform rural farming economies into diversified, sustainable communities. Her talk was so inspiring because it appealed to not only my academic pursuits but also my future career goals. As a premed student in the Woodrow Wilson School completing a certificate in Global Health and Health Policy, I’ve been looking for ways to integrate my interests in science and policy, and Dr. Sachs is a role model for me because of the way she’s incorporated these same interests into her successful career. As both an MD and an MPH, she practiced as a pediatric endocrinologist for years before taking the helm of the Millennium Villages Project, and through her lead I’ve realized how to combine my passion for working with people with my desire to make a different in a community on a macro level. In fact, this summer I will be researching the very same nutrition interventions that Dr. Sachs mentioned in her lecture as part of my internship at Bioversity International, and I will have the opportunity to explore the intersections between agriculture, nutrition, and health that function as the crux of the Millennium Villages Project.

People as educated, informed, experienced and inspirational as Dr. Sonia Sachs were present throughout the conference as speakers, workshop leaders, and even participants, and for the duration of the weekend I had the opportunity to hear their stories and come one step closer to figuring out in which direction I will steer my own life.

 Ophelia Yin ’13

As president of Unite for Sight this past semester, I’ve been trying to find the best way  to help students at Princeton feel personally connected to the challenges of eye care  abroad. I went into this conference with the question: how do I inspire others to take  action against a problem that does not feel pressing at home, though abroad, there  are 315 million (the population of the US!) who are visually impaired? I came back  with a few stories I would like to share that motivate me to do what I can in the US to  fund Unite for Sight clinics abroad and will hopefully give some insight to others about the communities affected by foreign intervention by doctors, volunteers, and NGOs.

Dr. Aron Rose, an MD and Associate Clinic Professor at the Yale School of Medicine, began his service abroad working for Unite for Sight, and since then he has been to China, Burma, Myanmar, and Bhutan. He took a different approach in every country, watching and learning from domestic surgeons before beginning to teach his own procedures. He spent his time not only performing surgeries for hundreds of people but also teaching local surgeons so that he could make a local, sustainable impact. His pictures of rural regions and the vast number of patients waiting in line to see him really imparted upon me the need for more eye care in developing countries. During his time living in each region, he got to know the doctors, communities, and issues preventing access to eye care in each region, many of which stemmed from the system, not the individuals. In China, though he was promised that any ophthalmologist interested could come watch his surgical demonstrations, only party member affiliates were allowed to take part. In Burma, where only 6% of the GDP is spent on healthcare, he found a deficiency in practitioners so that even monks and clergy, who are considered an entirely separate class from other citizens due to their religious commitments, suffer from correctable vision impairments.

Especially in areas with only one other ophthalmologist, he said that he had to critically assess cases to decide who would be given surgical procedures first. This type of question must seem foreign to eye doctors in the US, who can refer patients in urgent circumstances to other facilities, but it is one that volunteers like Dr. Rose must answer until healthcare practices are made more available for people in poorer nations. His dilemma sums up the key issue that I believe Unite for Sight chapters in the US help solve, because though fundraising is not as glamorous or exciting as work in the field, I think that it is the most effective way to aid foreign clinics in their efforts to expand eye care availability. Dr. Rose’s stories helped me better understand Unite for Sight patients, which will hopefully add to my fulfillment from events such as fundraising on campus that to me seemed so removed from the programs they sustain. It gives me even more incentive to volunteer at Unite for Sight clinics abroad, but it has also humbled me and made me realize that as a college student with no medical experience, perhaps the most I can do for others at this point really is to publicize, inspire, research, recruit, educate, and fundraise right here at home. More than anything, Dr. Rose served as a bridge to help connect me to the people who benefit from Unite for Sight’s services, and I hope that by sharing his stories and anecdotes to other students on campus, they, too, will feel like their money and involvement in the chapter does more than just increase a number on a fundraising page and actually has an impact on the lives of people who are given not just sight from eye surgeries, but also an opportunity to enjoy life in countries under much harsher conditions and policies than the United States.


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