Global Health Narratives Interview Series: Meet Dr. Blair Holladay

In my short career in pathology, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing laboratory medicine specialists working in global health. I’ve been curious to know their personal stories of how they got involved in global pathology and their suggestions of how we can also contribute.

In my first article for Lablogatory, I detailed my recent experience participating in ASCP’s Trainee Global Health Fellowship in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was incredibly exciting, and I was thrilled to be involved with what ASCP is accomplishing there. I thought it would be fascinating to hear from the CEO and the driving force behind the global health initiatives at ASCP – Dr. Blair Holladay. He was kind enough to reserve some time for me to interview him. I felt inspired after talking with him, and even more excited about the future of pathology in leading the way to success in global health! In the following, I share our conversation. I hope it will also leave you inspired to go out and change the world!

Dr. Holladay during a recent trip to Tanzania with ASCP.

Q: Dr. Holladay, how did you get started working in global health through laboratory medicine?

A: Beginning in the late-1980’s while working as a professor at the Medial University of South Carolina in Charleston, I directed a clinical trials cancer research center focused on developing better diagnostic test methods with the goal of improving access. My interest was focused on creating innovative pathways to diagnostics for people who don’t currently have access to testing, including those in developing countries. We sought alternative diagnostic methods, such as molecular biomarkers, that could act as screening tools and as targets for drug therapies.

Through the course of this work, what became interesting to me is that I found that a lot of low- and middle-income countries didn’t have an essential toolkit for population screening and were seeking to mirror the US in their broad test menus. This goal is realistically impossible, and unnecessary. This led me to the next step in my global health career, which was to work with companies around the world to develop alternative screening techniques and diagnostics that are more feasible to be used in low- and middle-income countries. To try to apply the same tests used in the US around the world is not possible and not helpful. You cannot retrofit a square test into a round hole — meaning that every country, every culture, every population, will have unique epidemiological issues and different access to healthcare. Considering this, I worked to develop individual diagnostic tool kits for each country – for each unique population, each unique financial setting, in order to bring the best diagnostics to populations without access. It is important to bear in mind that any test is better than no test. 

Q: How did you start working with ASCP and expanding the global health initiatives?

A: I started working as the Vice President for Scientific Activities for ASCP in 2005, but in the early 2000’s, ASCP’s global outreach was limited to only as distant as Canada. We worked to expand our outreach around the globe, with a strategy to look at where the need was the greatest, and next to focus on individual opportunities where the yield would be the greatest. This was, in our opinion, in Sub-Saharan Africa. We first started working with a [U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] PEPFAR grant to provide access to testing for HIV. With infectious disease, namely HIV, being the most problematic issue at the time, we focused our work to build capacity and infrastructure around this epidemic – our goal was to train the trainer, build a self-sustaining diagnostic system, and move on to the next country and do it all again. This was very successful until we ran into the next big problem – cancer. Suddenly people were living longer and developing cancer and other non-communicable diseases [NCDs]. One memory stands out – It was around 2012-13, while serving as ASCP’s CEO and working  with the Clinton Global Initiative,  I remember visiting Botswana where I walked into the main hospital ward to find beds upon beds full of women, laying there dying of cancer, while their young children sat on the floor around them.  The waiting areas were also full of children and their grandmothers, while their mothers were either dying or had already died of cervical cancer. We, at ASCP, realized then that we needed to do something about this growing epidemic, and we realized the need to focus on creating strategies for the prevention and intervention of NCDs.

As we set forth, one problem that we discovered was that the World Health Organization had undervalued malignancy as a global health threat – largely because the cancers were going undiagnosed and the cancer registries to generate data were anemic to non-existent. Realizing the urgency of the situation, we began working with the US federal government and other groups to enhance diagnostic access.

In 2014, I met with the Obama administration to urge them to place value on developing outreach to address cancer and other non-communicable diseases in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Emphasizing the urgency that because NCDs are the inevitably worsening epidemic in Africa, with a population approaching 1 billion, 800 million people or more who had little to no access to diagnostics and were clearly at risk for developing cancer. This will serve to threaten their rapidly growing economies and the ability for their economies to continue to grow.

The Obama administration agreed to let ASCP work with them to develop a program for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of NCDs in Africa. I was able to also garner the support of the Clinton Foundation and we brought in significant partners (such as Paul Farmer with Partners in Health) with cohorts such as the pharmaceutical industry, diagnostic industry, people in the public health sector, and key members in Pathology. ASCP proposed the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa initiative and together we launched this program from the White House in October of 2015.

This was the first time that any pathology association had ever launched a large-scale initiative of this kind to bring pathology and laboratory medicine to the forefront of the global health solution.

We began our work by partnering with the ministries of health in each country to establish disease registries. We forged a partnership with the World Health Organization and the Center for Global Health at the NIH to develop pathology-led early detection testing so that early intervention strategies could then be developed.

The Partners Initiative has grown into a 150-million-dollar operation run through the ASCP Center for Global Health which functions to first survey the disease prevalence in the country, next to build pathology and laboratory medicine capacity with the help of technology and pharmaceutical vendors, and to supplement the diagnostics with alliances with the interventionalists who can provide appropriate treatment.

Q: What about sustainability? How will these systems stay in place when ASCP leaves?

A: Before ASCP launches to build capacity and create the necessary partnerships for treatment, we ensure that there is government buy-in for long term sustainability. There is a ten-year exit strategy for each site – we aim to create turn-key facilities, where we can walk away and begin work in the next country. We do this by requiring each country to contractually prioritize diagnostics and develop a plan to financially sustain these systems. They must train enough laboratory and medical staff to run the facilities – and they must have a plan to train and retain pathologists to do the work.

We’ve also focused on the prevention of diseases and invested in a lot of education and training to teach the population about preventive medicine. We also support vaccination programs that lead to prevention of NCDs. For instance, in Rwanda, one hundred percent of the girls there have been vaccinated against HPV – a rate not seen even in the US. We’ve also had great success in dispersing laboratories throughout the country and the government has responded to support this by increasing the training of laboratory medicine specialists to nearly a 1000-fold increase since when ASCP first began working there.

Q: What are some ways laboratory members can contribute their skills to this cause?

A: Anyone that is willing to volunteer time is welcomed and needed, and there are opportunities available no matter your specialty. We try to match each person to their specific interest.

  • On the clinical side, we have many opportunities to volunteer with our PEPFAR initiatives around the world working in the microbiology and infectious disease space.
  • Much of our telepathology diagnostics are provided by our board-certified Anatomic Pathologist members that take time to remotely review cases.
  • We need the help of forensic specialists, for example in Puerto Rico, where we are working to go through the back-log of victims from the 2018 hurricane.
  • For residents and fellows, we have the ASCP Trainee Global Health Fellowship where they have the opportunity to spend a month at one of our global partner sites.
  • We’ve also started a Global Health Ideation Challenge that is an opportunity for anyone to contribute solutions to challenges uniquely faced by low- and middle-income countries.
  • There’s also ample opportunity for anyone to help us with our global education initiatives. We need people to work with institutions to help with educating and training laboratory members, build curriculums, and develop educational systems.

Q: Why is Global Health something that Pathology as a field needs to prioritize?

A: All you have to do is look at the world’s population – 80% of the population lives in developing countries. These are all our brothers and sisters and they deserve the same access to care and the same standard of care as we do in the US. At ASCP, we fervently believe health care for is a universal right.  How can we stand by and let children die of preventable diseases?

The Obama administration had initially raised the point that we in the US have our own health related issues to deal with – and they queried the incentives to prioritize the health of those in sub-Saharan Africa. I explained that if you consider that the US is currently the largest distributor of global aid – and that a threat such as the enormous burden that uncontrolled NCDs will place on the fast-growing economies of sub-Saharan Africa – then you must consider this situation a priority.

The US National Security Council shared these concerns and recognized that if even if only one of the booming African economies crumbles under the looming healthcare crisis, it is our economy that is ultimately affected.  We will be the ones to pay the price.

One must realize that the world is fluent – we are all connected now, and we work not only for altruism but also to ensure global health security. Compared to the scale of the HIV crisis, NCDs are the health threat that gone unchecked, will go far beyond in affecting huge proportions of the global population.

We cannot turn our backs on our brothers and sisters in other countries who are just like us, who just want the same access to healthcare that we have. We must have the life-cycle of our patients in mind when we offer diagnostic testing – how sad it would be to treat a young woman’s HIV infection for example, only to the let her die of cervical cancer in her thirties. We at ASCP believe it is a fundamental fiduciary responsibility to provide access to healthcare – and is part of why our members join us.

What was the reason that we went into medicine in the first place? Wasn’t it to help patients? We have the obligation to help not only our local population of patients, but also all those around the world. The work is difficult, but immensely rewarding. We can help make a difference in a big way, we just need to TAKE ACTION.

-Dana Razzano, MD is a Chief Resident in her third year in anatomic and clinical pathology at New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center and will be starting her fellowship in Cytopathology at Yale University in 2020. She was a top 5 honoree in ASCP’s Forty Under 40 2018 and was named to The Pathologist’s Power List of 2018. Follow Dr. Razzano on twitter @Dr_DR_Cells.

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