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Why are you here?

I was at a party of ex-pats in the Sanlitun district of Beijing explaining to an Australian professor teaching at Peking University that Pfizer had loaned me to GBCHealth to create a strategy for a diabetes awareness, prevention, and treatment campaign in China. He asked pointedly, “Wouldn’t it be more productive for Pfizer to take any monies it is paying you and just give it to the NGO for its diabetes initiatives?”

When I first learned my assignment at GBCHealth China, I confess that the professor’s question flitted through my mind, too. During my fellowship, however, I came to appreciate my value. I contributed a different perspective, a different skill set, and communication skills—all honed from my years at Pfizer in Market Analytics. I engaged decision-makers/stakeholders and the Chinese market with an innocent eye, a keen ear, and an open mind. I saw that the expertise of hospital endocrinologists did not filter down to grass-roots doctors who were often unable to recognize symptoms of diabetes. Patients, mistrusting the skills and training of the health care workers at community health centers (CHC), swarmed reputable hospitals for diagnoses and treatment as they shunned CHCs. To effectively communicate to patients how to manage their disease, I needed to hear how they talked about diabetes. I heard a volunteer pensioner at a senior center advising his peers to “control mouth” – or watch what they eat. Using phrasing like his in diabetes messaging allows patients to accept ideas like healthy diets more readily. Out of curiosity, I visited a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner who counseled his diabetic patients about treatments, inclusive of both herbal and insulin prescriptions. I contrasted his informed approach to another TCM practitioner who ran a full-page newspaper ad promising to turn extra glucose into energy using a foot pad and vowing that patients would never have to suffer an insulin shot ever again. I asked questions that illuminated motives, observed what was in front of me and what was not, and made connections that others had not. Asking a sales rep the number of insulin prescriptions filled in a month for a local hospital versus its neighboring CHC (over 5,000 for the hospital versus 25 for the CHC) revealed the deep mistrust that patients felt for the quality of grass-roots doctors. In reviewing a highly-touted physician-training program, I noticed the program lacked metrics needed to track whether physicians were actually integrating those lessons into their practice and making a clinical difference. At a cooking class at a cultural center, while commiserating with a participant about the amount of salt and sugar used in a vegetarian dish, I learned that she worked at an NGO doing excellent work in the cardiovascular/metabolic areas. GBCHealth’s regional Vice-President will meet with this NGO in June to follow up on possible synergies between the two organizations. I communicated my findings and developed strategies. None of the lessons I learned would be of value to GBCHealth unless I summarized and related the findings in a way that allowed my GBCHealth colleagues to make informed decisions. After 44 interviews with stakeholders, 26 written interview reports, and one PowerPoint deck, my colleagues have what they need to guide their next steps as well as those of the three Pfizer Global Health Fellows who follow me over the next year to continue the work I started with GBCHealth. That night in the Sanlitun district, I answered the professor that Pfizer made the wiser investment by sending a Global Health Fellow. I still feel that way.

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