50 Voices of the Future: Tim Mackey’s prescription for global health

From the rise of infectious diseases such as the Ebola and Zika virus to lack of access to safe and affordable medicines to bogus internet pharmacies selling dangerous counterfeit drugs, global public health systems are feeling the squeeze to implement better policies to protect their citizens.

Enter researcher Timothy Ken Mackey, who is working to ensure that global health goals are at the forefront of domestic and foreign policy decision making. Through his roles as associate director of UC San Diego’s Joint Masters Program in Health Policy and Law, assistant professor at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine and director of the Global Health Policy Institute, Mackey is helping to pave the future of healthcare by addressing important and under-served issues.

(1) Why is the work you do important?

As a child, I had the unique experience of growing up in multiple countries around the world, including the Philippines, Greece, Germany, Japan and the United States. In all those experiences I encountered people suffering from poor health conditions, poverty and lack of access to healthcare. From this experience, I chose to devote my future to the field of global public health because it is so complex, multidisciplinary and because it impacts the lives of everyone in society. My research deals with things that impact the poorest to the wealthiest populations, including the transnational criminal trade in counterfeit medicines, the political and policy impacts of infectious disease outbreaks such as Ebola, and the proliferation of criminal activity related to health on the web. Surprisingly, many of these topics, and the populations they negatively impact, do not have a voice and solutions to address these problems are severely deficient. This is why I truly believe that my research in global health policy can have a clear and measured impact, and it’s the sole reason why I chose a life in academia.

(2) What are the exciting developments in your field, and why?

What is most exciting for me is bringing together diverse groups of researchers from different backgrounds (including public health, computer science, political science, law and policy) to solve complex problems in unique and innovative ways. This includes thinking of creative ways to bring different research methodologies together in order to truly understand an issue. For example, we had a research project funded by the American Cancer Society where we looked at the infiltration of fake cancer medications into U.S. clinics. We used a combination of statistics, geospatial analysis and legal assessment to understand who was at highest risk and what policy solutions are needed in order to protect cancer patients now and in the future.

(3) What’s the next big thing?

The next big thing in this field is leveraging the power of “big data” and other advanced computational methods to understand human health behavior. We are doing this in several projects specifically looking at the national epidemic of prescription drug abuse. We are data mining and analyzing millions of messages from social media channels using advanced computational methods, including the use of cloud-based computing and advanced machine learning. This type of research can provide new insights on who, why and how people abuse prescription drugs, and eventually lead to targeted interventions to save lives.

(4) How big of an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

Global health policy is all encompassing and impacts all aspects of our shared global society. San Diego is no exception, especially given our close proximity to the border and our role as a major international trading portal. As diseases become globalized in the 21st century due to interdependence in international travel, trade and movement of peoples, international cooperation between all countries becomes even more imperative. In essence, all countries are vulnerable to infectious disease outbreaks, which now have the ability to jump on a plane and cross international borders in a manner of hours. This necessitates that global health goals are at the forefront of domestic and foreign policy decision making, something that we have tried to advocate for in our research in health diplomacy.

(5) Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?  How can individuals and companies prepare?

The future for global health is both troubling and filled with immense promise. Diseases no longer respect borders, and those of us who are devoted to the study of global health policy are constantly thinking of ways to improve international coordination and response to outbreaks, figure out the best way for global society to prioritize the plethora of global health issues that are becoming major impediments to human development, and designing policies that ensure that public health is a priority in political decision making. The rise of infectious diseases such as SARS, H1N1, H5N1 (avian flu), Ebola, and recently Zika, have put the spotlight on global health and have emphasized why this is perhaps our most important field of study in the next century.

If we invest sufficient resources in global health, we can continue to improve important human development indicators such as poverty alleviation, life expectancy, economic growth and activity. But if we de-prioritize global health, we have the potential to exacerbate the next global pandemic. As a collective global society, individuals can strive to be informed consumers of global health information, understanding the evidence-based risks of an interconnected health world while also practicing safe health behavior. For companies, civil society and other organizations, it is important to participate collaboratively in global health problem solving, with the goal of ensuring our shared interest in optimizing global health outcomes are achieved.

Learn more about our Global Health Policy Certificate and explore the variety of healthcare courses and programs we offer every quarter. In collaboration with the UC San Diego main campus, we also offer Masters of Advanced Studies in Clinical Research, Health Policy and Law, and Leadership of Healthcare Organizations.


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