Five Questions with Junaid Nabi

Junaid Nabi standing in front of his research poster wearing a suit.

Our ambassador for Postgraduate Education shares his work which examines how value-based healthcare strategy can transform delivery and promote health equity.

Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH, serves on a team of “ambassadors” who introduce our courses and training programs to faculty and scientists, both within and outside of Harvard University. A public health researcher and medical journalist, he is currently working as a senior researcher at Harvard Business School, where he examines how value-based healthcare strategy can transform healthcare delivery and promote health equity.

Who or what has inspired your career?

My father’s work as a physician — his tenacity stays with me and has been an inspiration. In Kashmir, where I grew up, there were many political, social, and economic forces that shaped the delivery of healthcare. It was clear to me from the beginning that the practice of medicine, in reality, is not as simple as it appears in textbooks. There are specific communities that tend to suffer more because of the larger socio-political forces at play.

The impact of the same COVID virus is different depending on the person, the community where they live, their access to healthcare, and whether they even have insurance.

As I began working in the field of healthcare disparities, I noticed that it was not enough to work on issues at an individual level. It’s important to understand and address the system-level impediments if we want to make progress. It’s not just about clinical medicine. It’s also about public health, businesses, economy, technology, and innovation. Building on these experiences has guided my career.

Why did you decide to volunteer as an ambassador?

I came to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for a master’s in global health, to understand how healthcare policy and care delivery interact, and though I studied biostatistics, I wanted something more in depth, focused on practical applications rather than theory. Researcher colleagues told me about the Harvard Catalyst certificate course in Applied Biostatistics.

I started receiving the organization’s newsletters, which exposed me to their other treasures. I took courses, depending on what I needed, such as Leadership Strategies for Researchers, a course on designing and conducting mixed methods research, and participated in the mentor-mentee program. All the teachers created practical curricula that students could apply to whatever field they were working in.

Through these courses, I met other people at the medical school, the Chan school, and the different affiliated hospitals. This was great for forming collaborations and friendships. Many of us were at similar stages in our careers. The courses were a refuge outside regular academic training, where we could help each other rather than compete. It was a space where we could be ourselves and discuss personal as well as professional issues.

I was excited to accept the ambassador role to help others who may not be aware of these resources at the university. With so many emails, newsletters, seminars, and opportunities, it’s sometimes difficult to curate what is valuable or relevant and what’s not. This role enables me to help others in my community, to point them in a certain direction, depending on the skill sets they are seeking.

Last spring you were a fellow in the Emerging Leaders program as part of the UN Association of the U.S., coordinating a global lecture on public health response to COVID. What else have you been up to?

I’ve been involved in both research and advocacy. I worked on various clinical research projects, such as one studying the impact of delays in treatment initiation for common cancers at the national level in the U.S., which was conducted to understand the policy implications of COVID restrictions. I also led research to understand the impact of malnutrition on children during COVID. Extreme poverty and nutritional challenges do not just go away when the government shuts everything down.

On the advocacy side, our research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital was one of the first in the country to raise awareness about racial disparities in COVID, showing its differing impact on racial and ethnic groups. I wrote about that for the Boston Globe to highlight the need for better data collection to measure these inequities, and published articles on strategy for containing the spread of the infection at the international level.

What is it going to take to reduce healthcare inequities?

Stakeholders need to come together and develop a unified goal and framework that addresses equity. Missing in this whole conversation is that stakeholders come to the table with varying definitions of equity, of disparities, and the origin of these disparities. When you speak with someone from the public health school, they have a certain perspective. Someone from the medical school has their own perspective, as does someone at the business school. They all have pieces of the puzzle. The goal is to bring all of these pieces together and develop a solution that truly addresses the problems.

One reason I’m at the business school now is that people there have the backgrounds, the networks, and working relationships with business leaders, who can enable change by committing resources. We may have 10 studies that show an intervention will help mitigate certain disparities, but we are stuck in a box without funding.

The next challenge for me is about diversity in leadership. A big issue revealed in the past year—and something I had been thinking about for a long time—is how different leaders respond to crises and what could have been done differently. This applies to COVID, the most visible problem right now, but also to other challenges, such as the opioid crisis, homelessness, and child poverty. I think it’s important that leaders who are in charge of solving these problems have a background that shows they relate to the problem. Those leaders tend to be empathetic and more effective.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Street photography is a hobby. I take lots of photographs of people and places. I also enjoy hiking and climbing mountains. Kashmir is close to the Himalaya mountains, where from an early age, I went trekking with my friends. Now my family and I like to spend time on the mountains in Northern Massachusetts and Vermont.

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