Untapped potential: Young leaders have the tools to help address health-care challenges

Young leaders in health care stepped up and proved their worth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as the global threat from the pandemic slowly recedes, young leaders again have been sidelined. Without empowerment or resources from governments or institutions, young leaders struggle to influence health policy or bring new interventions into the market effectively.

This is an enormous opportunity cost.

During the pandemic, driven by motivation and enthusiasm to support community initiatives, young leaders were able to demonstrate the impact they can make when provided resources and opportunity.

For example, in 2020 South Africa’s health-care system was crumbling under the weight of COVID-19. Recognizing their untapped potential, a group of medical students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) established the “UCT Surgical Society COVID-19 Student Taskforce” that mobilized university students to assist in the frontline response. More than 250 medical and non-medical students united across three distinct initiatives to make significant contributions (either remotely or in-person) to reducing the burden of COVID-19 on the South African health sector during the peak of the pandemic.

In Canada, a group of medical, pharmacy multidisciplinary students and volunteers used a 3D printer to make more than 25,000 face shields and delivered them to facilities across Ontario in 2020. As clinical learners were removed from rotations, and businesses closed in-store operations, youth leaders found an opportunity to leverage novel technology as a source of manufacturing for scarce protective equipment, providing essential equipment for patient-facing personnel at a time when PPE was in short supply.

The Reach Alliance, a global research and leadership initiative geared toward empowering students to investigate solutions to last-mile problems affecting marginalized populations, seeks to foster young leaders to make a global impact. Youth-led interventions were on full display at the 28th Session of the AFS Youth Assembly in New York City last August, where more than 30 panels and sessions explored the topics of Reducing Inequalities, Education and Employment, Climate Action, Global Trust and Global Solidarity.

Being a part of platforms that empower and showcase youth-led initiatives and innovations is important because it not only recognizes the meaningful contributions of young individuals but also serves as a catalyst for personal growth, global community-building and positive societal change. It encourages youth to pursue their passions, develop important skills and play an active role in shaping a brighter future for themselves and their communities.

Without including young thinkers, we default to conventional measures in a world that is rapidly changing.

Global health solutions require creativity, innovation and novel thinking. But without including young thinkers, we default to conventional measures in a world that is rapidly changing. Empowering young people in health care is not only a wise investment in their future but also a means to strengthen health-care systems, improve patient outcomes and address the evolving needs of the health-care industry since younger individuals often bring unique lived experiences and innovative ideas to the field.

Hence, it is imperative for governments and educators to accord greater recognition to young leaders and their ideas.

To facilitate the growth of students, universities should offer programs that enhance entrepreneurial and global leadership skills within the health-care sector. Additionally, they should allocate resources for incubation hubs and facilitate the entry of student innovations into the market. Empowering young leaders with a supportive network is vital for their success.

There are global health issues that are straining health systems and there will undoubtedly be new health challenges to come. We must develop the infrastructure and investment now to take full advantage of the untapped potential of youth if we are to address the global health challenges of today and of the future.

Editor’s note: Savannah Verhage is the recipient of the Outstanding Youth Delegate Award at the 2023 AFS Youth Assembly

The Reach Alliance was created in 2015 by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, in partnership with Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth.

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Savannah Verhage


Savannah Verhage, MBChB, is a Junior Doctor at Khayelitsha District Hospital, Reach Alliance researcher and Master of Public Health student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Jason M. Lo Hog Tian


Jason M. Lo Hog Tian is a PhD candidate at the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions, Unity Health Toronto and the Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto.

Peter Zhang


Peter Zhang, PharmD, MBA, is a Reach Alliance research alumni and PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

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