Behind the Movement: Vincent Lau Chan

It’s OK, We’re Not Going to Be Failures

Editor’s note: This story is part one of a three-part interview series with members of the Global Health Corps community who use their diverse skills and experiences to change the face of global health and move the needle on achieving health equity worldwide. Interviews were conducted by Lisa Shawcroft, a 2014–2015 Global Health Corps fellow at Marie Stopes International in Washington, D.C.. Read parts two and three of the series on AMPLIFY!

Unlike most of his peers in his Global Health Corps (GHC) fellowship class, as Vincent Lau Chan wrapped up his year as a fellow at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington D.C., he didn’t have a plan for what was next. And that was quite intentional.

“As GHC fellows, we tend to be very competitive and over achievers. We tend to have something in the pipeline right after we finish each stage in our lives, usually planning six months or a year in advance,” he says.

However, Vincent promised himself he wouldn’t rush into a decision he’d regret, despite other fellows’ constant questioning about his post-GHC plans.

Vincent felt added pressure from his family after leaving a good paying job in the pharmaceutical industry to go back to school for his Master’s in International Health and then eventually serve with the Global Health Corps. However, instead of caving into pressure, he used this moment as a time for self-reflection.

“I felt like, it was OK not to have a plan or know what my next steps were. I don’t have to follow everyone’s pattern. We’re not going to be failures. We’re already so accomplished at this point that it’s OK to take time off because we never have time for ourselves.”

“I felt like, it was OK not to have a plan or know what my next steps were. I don’t have to follow everyone’s pattern.”

After a few months of backpacking through Africa, Vincent landed a job working in Johannesburg as an mHealth Project Manager for Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. Recently, he made time to share insights on what led him to global health, what keeps him working in the field and what one health problem he’d like to tackle in his lifetime.

Question: You’ve lived and worked all over the world — Taiwan, Colombia, South Africa, America. As a GHC fellow living and working in Washington, D.C., what surprised you most about health inequities in the U.S.?

Vincent Lau Chan: When you look at Colombia or South Africa, you see that there are lots of health inequities in terms of access to primary care. I was surprised that in the U.S., this also occurred. During my fellowship year, the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, was still being rolled out and there was still resistance from some members of the government to implement this legislation for all citizens. If the opposition would have won, today the U.S. will not be able to provide affordable health insurance to all citizens.

Q: If you could tackle one health issue — and solve it in your lifetime — what would it be?

VLC: Access to primary care. I think by having access to… Actually — access to good primary care. If you have good primary care then you’ll prevent illnesses from arising in the future. Let me re-word what I said, actually access to good and free primary care would be the health issue that I would like to tackle. Good, and free primary care. That’s important.

Q: Your background is pretty unique. Before you became a GHC fellow, you’d already patented a levonorgestrel transdermal drug delivery system. In one sentence, how would you explain a levonorgestrel transdermal drug delivery system in laymen’s terms?

VLC: A TDDS is a patch that delivers drugs through the skin. Levonorgestrel is a hormonal drug for women’s health, especially for birth control.

Q: Was contraception something you were interested in even while you were working in pharmaceuticals?

VLC: Particularly interested in contraception, no. However, I was and am still interested in working for women and children, and Noven Pharmaceuticals [Vincent’s former employer] focuses on women’s and children’s health. Within women’s health, I researched and developed contraceptive and hormonal therapies, and within children’s health, I focused on the development of mental health TDDS, such as for ADHD.

Q: What made you leave the pharmaceutical world and pursue global health?

VLC: Truly, there were several factors. The first one was that my U.S. work visa was expiring, and although I was getting good money, and I was working in Miami, Florida, I started to think about my future career plans. You know, the beaches and the sun and my family lives there; however, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. Secondly, I wasn’t happy with the impact that I was making and with not being able to reach out to those that needed the products I was developing. For example, any transdermal drug delivery system in the U.S. is only available if your insurance is able to cover it and most of the times it is not covered. Otherwise, it comes out-of-pocket and people are able to access it only if they can afford it. The first [birth control] method that doctors will prescribe will be a pill. A transdermal drug delivery system is considered a luxury good. Because of these reasons, I wanted to work with communities and see a bigger impact. So, I decided to enter the public health field.

“I wasn’t happy with the impact that I was making and with not being able to reach out to those that needed the products I was developing.”

Q: Pharmaceutical companies aren’t always viewed favorably in public health circles. Do you ever feel judged for your background?

VLC: I don’t think I feel judged. For me it was a great experience [working in a pharmaceutical company]. Research and development is an important aspect of public health as well. It’s not just about delivering services or interventions or making policies, but it’s also about creating new drugs and vaccines to treat diseases. By doing so you’re also contributing to the public health field. I personally think that pharmaceutical companies should reasonably proportion their costs for the users, and don’t need to be making 400% profit, but less.

Q: What is one way your perspective on health has changed since you completed your fellowship?

VLC: In general, I’ve seen improvements [in health] in most countries and regions where I’ve worked. Even if we climb one step on the ladder, I think we should feel good about what we have accomplished. We don’t have to climb ten steps or achieve perfect outcomes. For example, steady decrements in HIV prevalence rates or more people accessing care is still an accomplishment even though we have not been able to cover everyone.

Q: This sort of work can be draining. Tell me about a time you almost quit, and why you didn’t.

VLC: I don’t think there was a time that I decided to quit, however, I have had incidents where the situation was not secure or safe or maybe it wasn’t going with my work ethics and my personal morals.

For example, when I was in Colombia and I was working with displaced population in a shantytown, I heard gunshots right outside — so you don’t feel safe about it, but you create measurements. You question this incident — is this something that I really want to focus on? Do I want to do this? What measurements do I want to take? I tried to find out ways to answer and find solutions to these situations and questions that would allow me to continue my desire to work in this field.

Working in public health can also become draining as we’re expected to produce, produce, and produce, but not take care of ourselves. There’s a self-care aspect that comes along with our jobs. In order for us to provide good service or be good at what we do, we need to make sure we’re feeling good internally and externally.

Vincent Lau Chan was a 2012–2013 Global Health Corps fellow at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C.. All GHC fellows, partners and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. Join the movement today.