By Susan Gallagher
On July 1, Shenglan Tang, Mary DBT and James Semans International Professor of Medicine and Global Health, became deputy director of the Duke Global Health Institute, a role that oversees implementation of DGHI’s strategic priorities. He succeeds Randall Kramer, the Juli Plant Grainger Professor of Global Environmental Health, who has served as the deputy director since 2010 (learn more about Kramer here).
Tang, who joined DGHI in 2012, has previously served as executive director of global health programs at Duke Kunshan University in China. His primary research expertise lies in health systems, global health policy and disease control, with an emphasis on neglected tropical diseases.
We talked with Tang recently to learn more about his background and his vision for DGHI as he steps into his new leadership role. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
DGHI: Tell us about your global health path.
Tang: After medical school, I left Shanghai for the University of Washington in 1990 to get my master’s of public health with a concentration in international health. At that time, the concept of global health didn’t exist yet—the term that was used was “international health.”
While I was there, I realized that low-income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America share many similar challenges. I thought these countries could learn from each other—that researchers from different countries could share their knowledge and experiences and help each other improve the health of their communities and countries. I found that very interesting and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to do health policy and health services research. For my master’s project, I used data collected in China to look at the impact of health insurance equity on access to and financing of health care.
After I finished my MPH, I did my PhD in health economics at Sussex University in England. When I graduated, I got my first job as a junior faculty member at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. I started to not only work on health policy issues in China but a number of global health issues in African and other Asian countries.
I always wanted to work in an international organization like the World Bank or the WHO. And I did spend almost seven years at the WHO, working first in their China office and then in their Tropical Diseases Research Program in Geneva before coming to DGHI.
DGHI: What career accomplishment are you most proud of?
Tang: Two things. One is capacity-building—training leaders of global health. I have trained a lot of master’s and PhD students from every corner of the global village, including African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Some of them have already become leaders in international global health organizations and professors and deans in universities in China and other Asian countries.
Secondly, translating research into policy impact—seeing how my research findings have helped to effect policy changes, particularly in China. For example, since the late 1980’s, I have been researching health insurance in China. One of our key findings in the late 90’s was that, without financial subsidies from the central government, it would be incredibly difficult to sustain the operation of health insurance, particularly in less developed regions. If health insurance funding relies only on premium payments, insurance schemes won’t have the resources to offer decent policies that people living in poverty can afford, so the goal of ensuring broad access to health care cannot be achieved.
And now, leaders in every country are talking about universal health coverage and using health insurance as one of tools to achieve it. More and more countries—like China, Thailand and Mexico—are now using tax-based revenue to subsidize people, particularly the poor and the vulnerable, to participate in health insurance.
DGHI: Describe your role as the deputy director.
Tang: As deputy director, my main responsibility is to support Chris Plowe, the DGHI director, in implementing the new strategic plan. I will also be involved in faculty recruitment and faculty promotions, as well as supporting DGHI’s eight centers and helping the associate directors advance the mission of DGHI. I still have some ongoing research projects, but I probably won’t be teaching as much.
DGHI: What are your main goals for DGHI over the next five years?
Tang: Mike Merson, the founding director, has laid a very solid foundation for DGHI, and now we have an opportunity to take DGHI to the next phase of development and make a greater impact in low- and middle-income countries.
My main goal is to expand our research portfolio, particularly in the area of NCDs [non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancer], which have become the largest burden of disease in developing countries. DGHI has done excellent work in infectious diseases, maternal and child health care and global mental health, but not as much in NCD control. We plan to recruit more NCD faculty as well as leverage existing resources and expertise at Duke—across the campus, in Duke Health and at Duke-NUS and Duke Kunshan.
I also hope to help strengthen our capacity in research that cuts across health issues, like implementation science, data science, health systems, health policy and health economics. These are vital components of global health advancement.
We also need to build upon what we’ve already achieved with multidisciplinary approaches by continuing to work with other interdisciplinary groups at Duke, like Duke Forge and Innovations in Healthcare.
DGHI: What’s your overall five-year vision for DGHI?
Tang: For our education program, I’d like to increase the number of master’s students, and I hope we can eventually offer a PhD in global health. I want our graduates to have an even greater impact on the health of people in communities across the world.
For research, I’d like to help increase the visibility of our work nationally and globally. Our faculty have done a fantastic job in their research, but I think we need to do more to help policy makers and the public learn about and understand our research findings and implications of our work. For example, we should be publishing more review papers and editorials in high-impact journals like Nature or The Lancet and writing more op-eds in more mainstream publications.
These are just a few ways we can do a better job influencing policy and contributing to improving the health of populations.
Mike Merson, the founding director, has laid a very solid foundation for DGHI, and now we have an opportunity to take DGHI to the next phase of development and make a greater impact in low- and middle-income countries.Shenglan Tang, DGHI deputy director