U of T alumna presents at the World Health Assembly in Geneva

Alumnus of the University of Toronto Yifan Zhou first became interested in global health during her third year global pharmaceutical policy course at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy – and recently had the opportunity to participate in health policy making on the global stage.

Zhou represented the International Pharmacy Student Federation (IPSF) at the 75th World Health Assembly, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in May. The Assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization.

The experience gave Zhou a unique insight into how global health policy is governed and provided opportunities to meet pharmacy students from around the world.

“I really like this profession, but I also realized that this profession is not the same everywhere in the world,” says Zhou, who is currently completing a hospital stay at the University Health Network in Toronto. “This experience opened my eyes to the many different public health issues facing countries.

“I also learned a lot from dealing with the other IPSF delegates. We learned a lot from each other about the global health system and shared our country’s solutions to a number of health challenges.”

Yifan Zhou at the World Health Assembly (photo courtesy of Yifan Zhou)

During Zhou’s third year of the PharmD program, she took Professor .’s Global Pharmaceutical Policy Course Jillian Kohler.

“In today’s world, it is essential for pharmacy students to understand how global issues affect pharmacy practice in Canada and beyond our borders,” Kohler says. “I design my course to encourage students to think globally, critically and in particular to focus on issues related to marginalized populations who lack safe access to essential medicines and to take action to make pharmacy systems more equitable.”

“It was so rewarding to learn that many of the students who took my course have since pursued global health opportunities by partnering with international pharmaceutical policy organizations or through dispensary practices in countries outside Canada to pursue.”

Zhou says Kohler’s course broadened her view of how pharmacy is practiced around the world and sparked her interest in global health issues.

“It opened my mind to a lot of things I didn’t know. This course made me more curious and more aware of different healthcare infrastructures around the world,” she says. “This course is a great way to expose students to the complexities of global health issues.”

Zhou first became involved with the IPSF – the international advocacy group for pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences students – in 2019 through the student exchange program and was a member of the subcommittee on translation and communication.

IPSF is one of only two student organizations that have official relationships with the WHO and can send delegates to the WHA. At this major annual meeting, delegates from WHO’s 194 member countries meet with recognized non-governmental stakeholders to make decisions about WHO policy, review its work, set new goals, discuss public health issues and review budgets.

Zhou was one of four IPSF delegates to personally deliver policy statements

Before the in-person meeting, Zhou and other IPSF delegates worked together to formulate positions on various health policy issues on the WHA agenda. Zhou says she was most proud of her work on the statement on WHO’s work in health emergencies, which highlighted the important role healthcare interns can play in providing patient education, vaccines and disease screening. Her work on this statement made her realize how much Canadian pharmacy students could have contributed to health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was not the case in many other countries.

Nearly 30 IPSF delegates from around the world, including another Canadian, traveled to Geneva to attend the WHA meetings. Due to COVID-19, the WHA restricted the number of people allowed in the Palais des Nations, home of the UN office in Geneva, and Zhou was one of four IPSF delegates allowed in. Zhou presented two statements to the other delegates from WHO member states: one on the availability, safety and quality of blood products and the other on the WHO’s 2030 immunization agenda.

“I found out on the first day of the meeting that I was going to make a statement, and I was super nervous,” Zhou says. “But we were in the outer ring with a microphone in front of us, so it felt like I was in a classroom, which was a breath of fresh air. All in all it was a great experience.”

Zhou says the days were long, starting at 9am and often ending around 8pm or 9pm. excercise. She and four other delegates are now working on an article about the experience that they hope to publish in academic pharmacy journals.

Zhou plans to continue volunteering with the IPSF and will continue to be involved in health care policy, especially as it involves advocating for the pharmacist profession to take a more active role in global health.

“Our profession has a lot of work to do in advocating for ourselves and what we can do here at home and abroad,” she says. “If we have more of a voice in international organizations and are involved in high-level policy discussions, pharmacists will become more visible.

“With our capabilities, we could contribute a lot and the public would also know more about what we can do and entrust their health more to us.”

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