'A great experience': U of T alumna presents at the World Health Assembly in Geneva

Yifan Zhou, an alumna of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, represented the International Pharmacy Student Federation at the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva in May (photo courtesy of Yifan Zhou)

University of Toronto alumna 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 world stage.

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

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

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

“I also learned a lot from hanging out 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 the global pharmaceutical policy course taught by Professor Jillian Kohler.

“In today’s world, it is essential for pharmacy students to understand how global issues impact pharmacy practice in Canada and outside our borders,” says Kohler. “I design my course to encourage students to think globally and critically and to particularly focus on issues related to marginalized populations who don’t have secure access to essential medicines and to take action to make pharmacy systems more equitable.”

“It has been so rewarding to learn that many of the students who have taken my course have since pursued opportunities in global health by working with international organizations on pharmaceutical policy or pursing pharmacy practice in countries outside of Canada.” 

Zhou says Kohler’s course broadened her perspective of how pharmacy is practised around the world and piqued her interest in global health issues.

“It opened my mind to a lot of things that I didn’t know. This course allowed me to become more curious, and I became more aware of different health care infrastructures around the world,” she says. “This course is a great way to begin to expose students to the complexity of issues in global health.”

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

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

Zhou was one of four IPSF delegates to deliver policy statements in person

Before the in-person assembly took place, Zhou and other IPSF delegates worked together to draft position statements about different health policy issues on the WHA agenda. Zhou says she was most proud of her work on the statement about WHO’s work in health emergencies, which emphasized the important roles health-care trainees can play in providing patient education, vaccines, and disease screening. Through her work on this statement, she realized how much Canadian pharmacy students had been able to contribute 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 one other Canadian, travelled to Geneva to attend the WHA meetings. Due to COVID-19, the WHA limited the number of people allowed in Palais des Nations, home of the United Nations Office in Geneva, and Zhou was one of four IPSF delegates able to enter. Zhou presented two statements to the other delegates from WHO member states: one about the availability, safety, and quality of blood products and the other about WHO’s Immunization Agenda 2030.

“I found out on the first day of the meeting that I would be delivering a statement, and I was super nervous,” says Zhou. “But we were seated in the outermost ring with a mic in front of us, so it felt like I was in a classroom, which was a relief. Overall, it was a great experience.”

Zhou says the days were long, beginning at 9 a.m. and often ending around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. She says she valued the opportunity to see how global health policy is decided and enjoyed meeting pharmacy students from around the world, learning about their pharmacy education and practice. 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 stay involved in health-care policy, especially as it relates to advocating for the pharmacy profession to play 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 internationally,” 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 abilities, we could contribute a lot and the public would also know more about what we can do and entrust their health to us more.”


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