Public health has always resonated with me. It’s exceptionally complex, perpetually nebulous, simultaneously the source of all problems and the source of all solutions in a health system.
Naturally, working for World Health Organization (WHO) has been a long-time dream for me. I remember eagerly scrolling through the WHO internship webpage at age 17 and feeling my heart sink when I read that the minimum age to apply was 20. Now, working for WHO at age 24 is a rarity. With the majority of staff at headquarters being 40+, my youth sticks out like a sore thumb. Over time, I became increasingly self-conscious about my age and frequently questioned my added value. When asked how I managed to secure my position at my age by fellow peers, I often alluded to sheer luck and good timing, unknowingly undermining the persistence and hard work I’ve put in to get here. In an organization and sector that places significant emphasis on expertise, I couldn’t help basking in some good ol’ Imposter Syndrome every so often.
Since beginning the role, I’ve learned that the places where young voices are needed most are the same places where youth are least represented. I’ve learned to remain steadfast about the value of seeing decade-old problems through an unbiased lens while carrying a sense of impatience for change. I’ve learned to wear confidence when I feel least confident, all while carrying a sense of humility and an eagerness to learn.
As a Consultant in the Assistive Technology team, I primarily support the policy and product aspect of the team’s work. My days are spent collaborating with various partner organizations to develop and implement tools and normative documents that improve a country’s capacity to provide quality, appropriate, and affordable assistive technology in a timely manner.
What’s stood out for me most when working in assistive technology is the stark contrast in access to quality assistive technology globally. The notion of tech is that it’s new, fast, everchanging, and disruptive. However, some of the most basic assistive technology (e.g. walking canes, reading glasses, pressure cushions etc.) are inaccessible to 90% of the population in need. As we innovate and push the boundaries of the health tech frontier, we risk increasing the gap in access to the same quality life-changing, lifesaving technology.
Throughout my role, I have been reminded that innovation is far beyond the newest gadget or the latest app- that it also encompasses simple, creative changes to existing materials which arise from sheer need for assistive technology. Tech can be novel and sexy, but we cannot forget its intended purpose to bridge inequities in access and in use. During this disruptive time, it is more important now than ever to ensure that those most disadvantaged are not neglected.
Policies, norms, and standards - what some would call ‘the boring blah blah for the old folks’- lay the foundations for how we design, access, and use technology, marking a fine, blurry line between what is of societal benefit and what is of harm. This space, which seemingly has little room for youth, is exactly the ecosystem that could benefit from high-energy, daring, young perspectives who are uninhibited by veteran approaches and are impatient for change. This space is equally, an ecosystem where youth need to be audacious in creating space for other young voices, courageous in challenging the status quo, and gracious when learning, unlearning, and relearning.
The views expressed in this blog post are entirely personal and do not represent the views of WHO
Alice Guo is a consultant in the department of essential medicines and health products at World Health Organization, working to improve access to assistive technology for everyone, everywhere through the Global Cooperation on Assistive Technology and beyond. She's microbiologist and immunologist by trade, a systems thinker, and a people embracer. She has a soft spot for climate action and inclusive health tech.
You can find her at @_aliceguo