Canadian academics reach across borders to transform global health

Public health is a lynchpin of Canadian society, impacting the lives of countless community members on a daily basis. But in many parts of the developing world, a public health system of this calibre remains an aspiration. Fortunately, there are dedicated individuals based in many of these countries who are determined to turn this aspiration into a reality.

One such individual is Professor Francis Zotor, who works at the University of Health & Allied Sciences (UHAS) in the Volta Region of Ghana and has been deeply involved in the creation of a School for Public Health at UHAS, based in the small town of Hohoe.

“Through its close ties to the community and to the Volta Regional Authority, the school has the potential to greatly improve the health and quality of life of people living in the area,” says Zotor of the school.

Established by an act of Ghana’s parliament in 2011, the School for Public Health started delivering BSc (Public Health) programs in 2012, and introduced master’s level programs in public health and applied epidemiology in 2017. Areas of focus for master’s level programming include disease control, health promotion, and reproductive health.

During a year-long postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta, Zotor had the opportunity to work with Canadian academics to learn and develop key lessons that he could bring back to his work in Ghana. While there, he connected with Duncan Saunders, a professor in the U of A’s School of Public Health.

While Zotor didn’t interact with Saunders extensively at U of A, an important force brought them together. Zotor was interested in learning more about what partnerships he might explore to help build public health capacity in Ghana. This was when he became aware of Academics Without Borders, a Canadian international non-profit organization that helps developing countries improve their universities so that they can train their own experts and conduct research to assist in their countries’ development. AWB’s projects are involved in the full range of university activities from expanding and improving existing institutions and programs to helping create new ones.

“When the opportunity came by in relation to AWB, I couldn't find a more dedicated scientist, physician and public health expert other than Duncan to share his experience with our young institution,” says Zotor.

Once AWB approved the project with UHAS, Saunders travelled as a volunteer to Ghana to work with Zotor and his team there. Their first area of focus was a review of the new master’s level programs that had been introduced at the school. With guidance from Zotor and UHAS School of Public Health’s Acting Dean, Margaret Kweku, Saunders reviewed documentation relating to the master’s programs in public health and field epidemiology, interviewed faculty members, observed classes, and surveyed students on the strengths and challenges associated with the programs. All of this crucial work was made possible by funding from the Djavad Mowafaghian Foundation.

  From left: Francis Zotor, UHAS Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor Seth Owusu Agyei, Duncan Saunders, and Dr. Margaret Gyapong, Acting Director Institute of Health Research

From left: Francis Zotor, UHAS Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor Seth Owusu Agyei, Duncan Saunders, and Dr. Margaret Gyapong, Acting Director Institute of Health Research

The review found many strengths, including the students’ positive perceptions of the overall programs, the curricula, and the faculty. It also found that issues such as poor internet connectivity and a burdensome lecture schedule were posing challenges for the programs.

At the request of the acting dean, Saunders helped begin the process for redesigning the curriculum for the school’s Masters of Public Health.

“The outcome of Duncan’s time spent with both faculty and students will have far-reaching impact not only in our university, but across the country of Ghana wherever our researchers interact with community members, as we will be in the position to share what we had learned,” says Zotor. “Capacities have been built and lives will be impacted.”

Saunders adds that “this project was fulfilling and a joy because of the hugely positive interactions I had with people in Hohoe, including with committed School of Public Health faculty, with smart and hard-working students and staff, and with the friendly and welcoming people of Hohoe.”

It's work like Zotor and Saunders’s that speaks directly to the core mission of Academics Without Borders. It’s with this same mission in mind that AWB will host the global conference Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World this November 5th to 7th in Montreal.

This first-of-its-kind event will gather academic experts from around the world together with representatives from government, post-secondary leadership, NGOs, and the private sector to explore how academics and their institutions can help developing countries care for their citizens and build their economies. This work will involve sharing case studies, successes and failures, and best practices, as well as working directly with representatives from institutions in developing countries to co-create new approaches to longstanding and emerging social and economic challenges.

To learn more about this exciting event, please visit Academics Without Borders’ website.

If you or someone you know are interested in presenting at this conference, also be sure to review the conference’s Call for Submissions.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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