By Don Sutherland, Senior Advisor for Public Health, Canadian Society for International Health
The Canadian Society for International Health (CSIH) asked me to travel to Cape Town, South Africa for the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research shortly after learning that it had been chosen as the local host organisation for the Fourth Global Symposium, to be held in Vancouver in 2016. In my role as Senior Advisor for Public Health at CSIH, I had previously been part of the organising committee for the annual Canadian Conference on Global Health, as well as working with the youth committee on mentorship and career development.
My initial response to CSIH’s request was that I would be glad to attend the Cape Town Symposium on its behalf, but what was this “health systems research” all about? My long career in international health has included work for the World Health Organization, national governments in Africa and Asia, and various international nongovernmental organisations. I also have conducted and published research based in Canada and more than 40 other countries. Given my lack of familiarity with health systems research in spite of this broad frame of reference, I was very curious to learn just what would go on in Cape Town.
When I arrived at the symposium and learned who was there and what their interests were, I realised that although the phrase “health systems research” was new to me, I had in fact been doing it for over three decades. The symposium theme, “the science and practice of people-centered health systems,” certainly resonated with some of the sessions I attended, as well as with my own interests. When African district medical officers (DMOs) can take the results of research and apply it to their annual and perhaps even daily decisions regarding their populations, it seems to me that this is the research needed globally. Furthermore, the same DMOs along with more senior officials were describing the research questions they wanted answered. There were even accounts of innovative collaborations that bring implementers and policy-makers together with researchers to identify priority research questions as well as to design the follow-on studies.
As you can imagine, I was won over as to the relevance and importance of this type of research. Its applicability to many resource-limited settings – as well as to well-off countries such as Canada – was quite clear. Conversations at the Symposium also helped point the way forward for CSIH. It seems that Vancouver 2016 offers an opportunity to engage more with Latin America and perhaps more with Pacific Rim countries as well. We might also consider working with indigenous communities and populations in order to better understand how they blend traditional values and Western medical services in different ways.
I returned to Canada full of enthusiasm and energy, and I am eager to get Canadian colleagues and institutions geared up for a powerful and well-attended Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research.