Torchbearer: Roopa Dhatt. Indian-American. California Native.
“Being a physician is a core part of who I am, but at the end of the day, being an advocate is what drives me.”
Roopa Dhatt is a global leader in gender and modern-day health. Her journey grew out of unfortunate circumstances that inspired her to close health equity gaps all over the globe.
The Trip That Started It All
I moved to the United States when I was five years old. But like many Indian-Americans or Indian immigrants, I have very close roots in India.
My grandparents were living in Punjab, in a city called Chandigarh and I would spend summers there. When I was nine years old, during one of the trips, I got really sick. The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong - they said, ‘Oh you're just a child who is probably homesick - missing your parents.' Or, 'You have a travel bug.’ The doctors weren’t taking it seriously.
Then I started showing signs of a severe infection, being ‘septic’ is the medical terminology – that's when they started triaging me and taking me seriously. I was in septic shock, with an infection and a burst appendix. I had to be rushed into surgery.
The infrastructure was very limited. It was a time in the health system of India when the country was still developing economically. Patients had to pay out-of-pocket to get better care and that hasn't really changed today. The hospital where I was evaluated and had surgery was under resourced – hundreds of patients lined-up for hours, not knowing when they would be seen or what care they would receive when seen.
I felt privileged and very fortunate that I was saved. I was lucky to be in a town where a doctor had stayed and provided critical care. After this, I felt my own calling was to give back in the same way – to become a doctor.
Life Through a Different Lens
This journey of working on inequities – social inequities, racial inequities, health inequities, gender inequities – is primarily a personal journey.
Years later looking back on my family history as an adult, it became clear how little decision-making power the women in my family had. They did what they could with the little they were given - they made sure that the next generation of women would have better lives than theirs.
In high school I was always very active in civic service. I was particularly drawn to understanding and working on societal challenges. In my undergrad years, I immersed myself as much in cell biology as well as sociology and ethnic studies.
Dr. Dhatt and Detours
I went to medical school, then took a detour to get my master's in policy – which the dean at the school of medicine wasn't too happy about. Then I decided to pause my masters. I just wasn’t ready to finish it. I ended up disrupting medical school to pursue my masters, only to disrupt my masters to finish medical school. Clearly, following my own path has been a core part of my identity!
It was during my detours that I discovered the United Nations and the World Health Organization and the immense role these organizations have in the world. I learned about the global declarations, basically the policies that set a higher standard for all our lives and their transformative vision for the world.
Women in Global Health
Women make up most of the health workforce – 70% of the health workforce are women, which includes physicians, nurses and midwives. Yet...
Women occupy fewer than 25% of senior decision-making positions. That includes boards, executives, ministers of health, deans of public health and medical school.
When you look at the deans of medical schools and department chairs – the women in leadership figure falls below 20%, in some countries, even as low as 10%!
Then in the private sector, women only represent 5% of the CEOs in Fortune 500 healthcare companies.
A lot of people would say be happy with that. But I've always wanted to help shape a system, not just be part of it. I learned pretty early on that there just aren't a lot of ways for women to get into top leadership roles. The system is not set up for women to become leaders.
The Hashtag That Started It All: #WGH100
A pioneer woman leader in global health, Ilona Kickbusch, started a social media campaign in 2014. She saw an all-male panel at a global health event and she simply wrote on Twitter, ‘There’s no reason an all-male panel should be happening in global health. There are so many talented women!’ Then she started this hashtag – #WGH100, which stands for Women in Global Health 100. With this hashtag people could suggest 100 women that could speak on global health. It became 200 women. Then 300 women. The hashtag highlighted 300 female health experts who should be speaking on panels.
I was so excited! I reached out to her and asked, ‘So what's going to happen next? You know this can't just be a social media campaign with a list.’ Ilona felt the next generation should take on the challenge – and that spurred me on...
Through social media I met two other early-career women who were also tweeting at the same conference. They really stood out because they were looking for solutions. I pinged them on Twitter and asked if they would be interested connecting. I also had a close colleague of mine from Sweden who had been working on gender equality for a decade.
The four of us came together. We had a couple of Skype calls and no kidding, I think we started our conversations in March or April – in May we went to the World Health Assembly using our own money, without a big plan. There we decided to launch the Women in Global Health movement. It was initially a campaign.
In 2015 we launched the movement at a coffee table in Geneva and now we have 15 chapters and 25,000 supporters from 90 different countries.
Our work is known by women in senior positions running UN agencies, to early-career high school students. We also have men and non-binary people who engage with the movement. We're committed to working in an inclusive, diverse way. We take on issues of power, privilege and position and campaigning for equity. Because we know that is the route to stronger global health.
Women in Global Health came out of deep-rooted values on social inequities in the health sector.
A Seat at the Table
We went back to the World Health Assembly after a year of what was really an awareness campaign. We now had a strong affiliation and a strong partnership. Then for the first time in history, women leaders in global health came together over dinner during the Assembly. We brought together 40 women to recognize our role in global health.
It was fascinating! Many of the attendees had been working in the field for decades and said they've never been at an event like that – where they could talk about their career journeys as women. Previously conversations had been about technical issues, but not about their personal journeys. It was very moving!
There is NO Finish Line
I’ve learned that it's okay to break the rules – bend the rules, whatever you want to call it. Without rules changing, we're not going to see social change. Especially in a country like the United States, which has so many examples of discriminatory laws that segregate people based on race, gender, poverty and many other characteristics.
My advice to young professionals is this: Explore away! Don’t underestimate your own ability – explore your interests and explore new opportunities. Keep dreaming and carving your own pathway.
We have a short time on earth, make the most of this time and keep learning.
~ Roopa Dhatt
Enjoyed Roopa's journey? Then let us know! Here are other inspiring moments.
Read: "The Dream Giver" - We’ve been taught that what you end up doing as your career is just a vehicle for social activism.