What Do You Get When You Cross “American Idol” with Global Health?

How does a global health policy expert help his students understand the complexity of developing, implementing and evaluating a global health policy and garnering the necessary support to move the initiative forward?

If you’re global health and public policy professor Gavin Yamey, you make it fun: you hold a policy case competition modeled after the popular television show, “American Idol,” complete with a panel of judges ready to dissect the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. And you call it “Policy Idol.”

This month, Yamey held two Policy Idol competitions, one for undergraduate students and one for graduate students in his global health policy courses.

“I am a passionate believer in learning by doing,” said Yamey. “It’s one thing for students to learn the theories of how you achieve big changes in global health, but it’s another to actually have to apply them to a real world health problem. My hope is that Policy Idol shows students the complexities and realities of planning and implementing change—with a little fun thrown in for good measure!”

The Task

Randomly placed on eight- or nine-person teams, students were challenged to choose a neglected health issue in a country of their choice and develop a policy solution, drawing on the skills, theories and frameworks they’d learned throughout the semester. After presenting their proposal, each team received feedback from a panel of expert judges.

Each proposal had to include the following elements:

  1. A plan for getting the issue onto the health policy agenda
  2. An evidence-based policy solution
  3. A stakeholder analysis and strategies to influence these actors
  4. An implementation plan
  5. An evaluation plan
  6. A short- and long-term financing plan

The Judges

The Policy Idol judges included:

  • DGHI director Michael Merson (jokingly deemed the “Simon Cowell” of the panel for his hard-hitting yet constructive feedback)
  • Krishna Udayakumar, associate professor of global health and medicine and head of global innovation for Duke Medicine
  • Rose Wilcher, director of research utilization at non-profit organization FHI360
  • (for the undergraduate competition only) Dawn Quin-Chee, research scientist at FHI360
(From left) Rose Wilcher, Dawn Quin-Chee, Michael Merson and Krishna Udayakumar

Students Rose to the Occasion

Students embraced Yamey’s challenge, attempting to tackle a wide range of complicated issues, such as tuberculosis in South Africa, HIV among injection drug users in Ukraine, human trafficking in Malyasia and depression and alcoholism in Russia. One group created an original video, another group developed a website and active social media presence, and the group addressing tuberculosis distributed face masks to select audience members to emphasize their presentation points. Many of the groups created t-shirts, hats, pins and posters to help promote their proposals.

The winning graduate student team was “Build without Blood,” whose policy aimed to improve the health and well-being of construction workers in India through a workplace safety initiative.

“Build without Blood,” the winning graduate team

“I learned that one of the most important aspects to policy making is effective presentation,” said Prasana Khatiwoda, a second-year Master of Science in Global Health student and member of the “Build without Blood” team. “We knew our policy was good and evidence-based, but the challenge was to come up with creative ways to convince the judges. That’s why we had flyers and construction jackets. Perhaps this is what it’s like in the real world: innovative policy advocacy is just as important as innovative policy itself.”

“Farm to Family,” the team that sought to boost food security in North Carolina by increasing access to affordable, healthy food, emerged as the winner of the undergraduate competition.

“Farm to Family,” the winning undergraduate team

“The competition showed me just how difficult it is to pitch a policy that addresses the complexity of implementing global health interventions while still capturing the imagination of an audience,” reflected Christina Schmidt, a junior global health and evolutionary anthropology major and member of the winning team. “The development of our policy was truly a team effort—without every single one of our team members, our policy pitch would not have been successful.”

Judges Praised Students, Gave Constructive Feedback

The judges complimented the students on their efforts and their presentations and prompted them to consider additional factors that may have strengthened their proposals.

When announcing the undergraduate winners, DGHI director Michael Merson told the students, “You gave terrific presentations. You took on such challenging issues and they didn’t throw you at all.”

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