Better health for developing countries

Since she was 12 years old, Roma Patel has dreamed of working for the World Health Organization. “Just knowing a place like the WHO existed was truly thrilling to me and I wanted to be a part of it,” says Patel. As a student in the Joint Degree Program, she is a year into earning a Master’s in Public Health in Public Health Administration and Policy and she is beginning her second year of law school. This summer, she will get a chance to dip her toe in the WHO’s waters.

After completing a corporate legal internship at UnitedHealth Group, Patel will travel to Geneva to conduct research, with help from the WHO’s Department of Public Health Innovation and Intellectual Property, for her Consortium Research Award-winning proposal, “The Doha Declaration: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

The Consortium Research Awards are given for intramural projects related to the societal implications of advances in the life sciences. Since 2000, the Consortium has presented more than $1 million to University of Minnesota faculty and graduate and professional students like Patel.

The 2001 Doha Declaration grew out of the 1994 Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, which established minimum intellectual property regulation standards for World Trade Organization member nations. Doha “asserted the principle that public health is more important than profit” and reaffirmed the flexibility of member states to circumvent patent rights for better access to essential medicines during a public health emergency.

“There are two essential problems with Doha,” says Patel. “One is that no one really knows what constitutes a ‘public health emergency,’ or who has the authority to decide that. The other complexity is that there has been only one documented case of a country utilizing this ‘flexibility,’ since 2003 and Doha has been around for 12 years. There are obviously barriers and perhaps even deterrents at play.”

Patel’s project will explore how to go beyond Doha and TRIPS to help improve access to essential medication and public health in developing nations. She plans to use the research as a foundation for her master’s thesis and hopes to publish her findings in a law or public health journal

The bigger picture
Patel received a B.A. in English from Carleton College and, “like many students in college, I was premed,” she says. She spent summers as an undergrad shadowing physicians at a small independent clinic in Queens, NY, and at Minneapolis’s Community-University Health Care Clinic, and assisting in bimolecular cancer research at Duke University’s School of Medicine. The more exposure she had to the health care system, the more she noticed the same systemic problems affecting how patients were being treated, the treatment they could receive, and the care physicians could give. She found herself becoming more interested in policy and the law than in practicing medicine.

“It was my senior year, I was ready to apply to medical school, I’d taken the MCAT, everything was ready to go, and I read about a dual-degree law and public health program,” she says. “I didn’t know what it was. I started investigating, and I thought both the concept and the timing were perfect.”

Instead of applying to medical school, Patel searched for schools that offered a joint MPH/JD degree. She chose to go to Case Western Reserve University, but transferred to the University of Minnesota after her first year. “The U of MN’s dual degree offering is so strong because you have two very reputable programs joining forces,” she says. “Through the Joint Degree Program, I can get both degrees at the same time and the program gives us every opportunity to explore the nexus between public health and the law.”

Patel will start her career at what she calls “an exciting time”—when the Affordable Care Act is being implemented, and significant improvements to the U.S. health care system will be possible. Maybe she’ll work at the federal level in health policy; maybe she’ll work at the WHO when she’s “a real lawyer,” she says. Whatever she ends up doing, she just wants “to be a part of the conversation.”