In the Service of Others

photo by ben seidelman shared through cc by 2.0

Friday, March 4, 2016

Like many of his peers, Josh Greenberg’s path into medical school and his interest in global health and disparities were shaped and influenced by personal experiences. So too, it turns out, was his social conscience.

Greenberg, an MD-PhD (Economics) student at the University of Michigan, was first introduced to the idea of health when his brother and sister were both diagnosed with Canavan Disease, a progressive and fatal neurological disorder most common in people of the Ashkenazi (eastern and central European) Jewish heritage. Though he was young at the time, Greenberg, along with his family, was heavily impacted by their health needs, the frustration of misdiagnoses, and the hopelessness of a positive outcome.

“During my siblings’ lives and following their deaths,” Greenberg shares, “my parents spent a great deal of time researching and networking with other families who were similarly affected by this disease, about which little was known at the time. They founded the Chicago chapter of National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases,” he continues, “and reached out across the globe to find families who, like themselves, were willing to donate tissue for the sake of research with the ultimate goal of having carrier and prenatal testing available for other families. It was all a prime example of altruism.”

Unfortunately, the Greenbergs and others had further challenges during a decade-long battle that ensued regarding tissue use and patenting of the Canavan gene. These early life events sparked Greenberg’s early interest in the fields of science and medicine and in global health inequalities. He joined his high school debate team, gaining new perspectives on global issues and developing his own opinions about situations he had not confronted before. He became more aware of the disparities within his own community in the south suburbs of Chicago and started reading books about global poverty and development to expand his insight on the fundamental causes of disease. He began to understand the social injustices enmeshed within today’s society and wanted to positively impact this global problem.

“As I headed off to Duke University for my undergraduate education,” Greenberg reflects, “I wanted to make it my top priority to become involved in service activities - particularly in global health.” Along with his hall mate, Eddie Zhang, Greenberg founded Progressive Health Partnership (PHP), an organization dedicated to decreasing the burden of disease on the poor through community-based health programs.

“I realized we could make equally large, if not larger, impacts with social research as opposed to biomedical research,” Greenberg points out, “as the fundamental causes of disease are primarily socioeconomic in nature.” 

Initially, PHP received some financial support from Duke University, but the team felt it needed access to a larger pool of funds in order to grow the organization and make a global impact on healthcare. In 2010, Greenberg registered Progressive Health Partnership as a 501(c)(3), which could provide the needed resources for expansion. Through a Duke professor, he and Zhang developed a connection with a Ugandan physician who introduced them to underserved communities in Uganda, leading to Greenberg’s first trip to the country in 2009.

There, he realized that a more comprehensive approach to healthcare was needed to provide a structured support system for disadvantaged communities. PHP conducted wide-ranging community-driven needs assessments to identify key issues within the communities and, with the help of the government and community members, was able to target the specific needs of each community and advance a sustainable approach to healthcare. Collaborating with the local government, Greenberg and the PHP team began working to obtain funding and established a 5-member staff in Uganda to implement healthcare programs.

“Knowing the community dynamics is critical for the success of any program,” Greenberg elucidates.  “Our goal is to be able to measure the impact that we make, master our model of work, and then successfully implement this model in other countries, adapting to the local context.”

The young organization has had several key points of pride since its inception in 2007. PHP launched the Rainwater Harvesting Project to help deliver safe, clean water to community members, and the organization has also partnered with the government to carry out the Omukazi Namagara Program which has provided antenatal and postnatal care at local Ugandan health centers, home visits to mothers, and a reproductive health education campaign to the residents of Kashongi and Kitura. PHP hopes to expand its comprehensive program in the future and will continue to work in the communities of Kashongi and Kitura. 

When Greenberg was considering graduate school, the MD-PhD program at the University of Michigan seemed the right fit.  The combination of medicine and economics would allow him to build on his experiences and his interests, and he was impressed by the University's support of interdisciplinary studies and student engagement in activities that expand beyond traditional education boundaries.   Upon acceptance into the program, he worked to partner with UM to continue to gain support for the organization. “When you have a vision,” he explains, “it does not make sense to let it go just because you are graduating. To me, this was much more than just an extracurricular in college.” 

In his first four years here, Greenberg has seen the UM promotion of PHP grow both in terms of organizational endorsement and student involvement, including a kindred spirit in UM medical student, Yashar Niknafs, the current Director of Development for PHP.

For his part, Greenberg has continued his role as Chief Executive Officer and upholds PHP’s three pillars of service, research, and advocacy. As he works towards his goal of combining medicine and economics into his future career, Greenberg promotes the ideals of equal opportunity and providing service to all individuals. 

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