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Persistence and passion can make women game-changers in global health

In many ways, the career of Patricia Garcia, MD, PhD, Peru's former minister of health, embodies what it takes for women to advance and bring about change in the global health world: persistence, passion, and a willingness to speak up and to be open to unexpected opportunities.

Garcia spoke near the close of the Women Leaders in Global Health conference last week at Stanford's medical school, one of five distinguished panelists offering advice to other women on how to be a "change agent" and become a leader in the global health field.

Garcia was the dean of the School of Public Health at Peru’s Cayetano Heredia University in 2016 when she received a surprising call from the country's president, thinking it was a "joke," she said. The president invited her to his home, and after they talked, he offered her the country's top health job.

"I thought it was an opportunity to make a difference in my country although I knew the average time of a minister in my country was six months," she told the audience of some 400 women, speaking rapid-fire and with hand flourishes. "I have to tell you it was really tough, really tough. There was a lot of politics and corruption," which she fought against.

Still, she managed to make some headway, increasing access to human papillomavirus vaccination by 85 percent, introducing telemedicine and electronic medical records and raising the salaries of health workers, among other initiatives, she said. She lasted a year and two months in the job before the entire Cabinet resigned in September 2017 and she returned to the university, she said. In the process, though, she learned a great deal, offering this advice to the audience:

You have to work with passion, and you have to love what you, and I do love public health. Do your best to create opportunities. That's why I jumped into the minister of public health, though everybody thought I was crazy -- though I call it passionate crazy. And fight against your own fears. Raise your voice when you need it. That's what I learned. And be honest. Be perseverant and also have patience because change takes time.

After her talk, Donna Shalala, PhD, former U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services and the facilitator for the panel, offered a light-hearted suggestion: "You know Patty, the United States has an opening for a minister of health," she said to much cheering and clapping from the audience.

Geeta Rao Gupta, PhD, a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and another panelist, echoed Garcia's advice. Gupta said her own career, in which she has worked to empower women and girls, was guided by her upbringing in India.

"If you are educated and don't come away with anger in your belly, there is something desperately wrong with you -- because the inequities and injustices are so apparent," she said. "Even though I grew up in a very progressive family, I noticed the inequities around me and experienced in college the daily assault on my physical being. It seemed a natural progression to try to understand why our society is so inequitable to gender."

She went on to obtain her PhD in social psychology, trying to understand why women make the choices they do and sometimes suffer as a result, often adjusting to circumstances that are intolerable. Along the way, she learned some valuable lessons.

"What I think succeeds career-wise is not to say no to opportunities," she said, as a career trajectory is often not linear. "You would be surprised at where life takes you. Feel the passion and take that passion forward. Back it up with data when you can and back it up with human stories."

The day-long conference was hosted by Stanford's Center for Innovation in Global Health and co-sponsored by the NIH and 17 academic institutions and nonprofits.

Previously: Women leadership in global health benefits everyone, conference goers are reminded and First Women Leaders in Global Health conference comes to Stanford
Photo of Patricia Garcia by Rod Searcey

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