• Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Oluwatosin Olateju, outstanding nursing professor influencing change, honoured in the US


Nigerian-born Oluwatosin Adeyemo Olateju is a nursing professor at Coppin State University and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Morgan State University, Maryland, USA. She is a grassroots public health nurse leader with extensive experience working in Maryland’s hospitals and local health departments, implementing, managing, and evaluating several critical health programmes.

In 2023, Oluwatosin was appointed by Governor Wes Moore of Maryland and made history as the first Black woman to serve as State Commissioner and Co-Chair of the newly established Commission on Public Health. In her role, she leads efforts to assess the foundational public health capabilities of the state and local health departments and makes recommendations for reform. Olateju thoroughly understands health policy issues, including the complexities of healthcare systems, public health challenges, and the legislative process.

As far back as 2018, Oluwatosin, through her leadership and advocacy, has served as a trailblazer and catalyst for meaningful legislative changes that have improved the health outcomes of Marylanders and promoted equity and social justice.

She holds a Doctor of Public Health degree from Morgan State University. Oluwatosin earned a Master of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

Olateju’s impact extends far beyond the borders of the US and Nigeria. Since 2019, she has made multiple visits to Nigeria, using her non-profit organisations, Food and Care For All, Inc (FCFA) and Meals for Kidz Initiative (MFKI) as platforms to reach and empower underserved communities and disadvantaged populations, especially young girls and women.

Furthermore, Olateju sponsored the commission of a new sick bay (with a stationed nurse) at Baptist Grammar School in her hometown of Iresi, Osun State, Nigeria in 2021. The sick bay provides students and community members with free health care services (including health education and treatment), thereby improving their health, increasing their knowledge about health and diseases, and promoting school attendance.

Oluwatosin’s efforts have not gone unnoticed; she has been recognised internationally for her philanthropic work. This global recognition is a testament to the significant and far-reaching impact of her initiatives, inspiring admiration and appreciation from people around the world.

As a female leader and mother of two young boys, she is an empowering role model. She inspires others, especially women and girls, to pursue their passions in nursing and public health and positively impact their communities.

Despite facing challenges and setbacks, Olateju’s resilience and determination to effect social change remain unwavering. Her commitment to the cause, the impact of her work on the lives of those she serves, and her steadfast resilience command respect and admiration.

Can you share some examples of the critical health programmes you have implemented, managed, and evaluated?

I have had the incredible opportunity of developing, managing, and assessing both new and ongoing community health initiatives in the U.S. with wonderful teams at different points in my career.

Some of which include HIV and STI Prevention and care programmes, women’s health programmes, family health, school-based health and wellness initiatives, diabetes prevention and smoking cessation programs, nutrition and food access programs, COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and other general health and wellness programmes.

What are some of the key challenges you have faced while implementing these programmes, and how did you address them?

As a public health leader whether in governmental health settings or non-profit organisations, I have been involved with creating programme policies and procedures, writing and managing grants, completing programmatic and budget reports, coordinating meetings and staff training, managing staff and understanding their individual profession needs, evaluating staff’s performance, managing diverse clients, populations and communities, and so on, but most importantly ensuring that those programmes achieve their set goals and objectives.

Assuming those responsibilities come with unique challenges such as dealing with staffing shortage, having limited funding and other resources to implement and sustain the programmes, dealing with poor knowledge of the issue among staff and target populations or communities which can result in them not fully accepting the program, staff’s resistance to adopt new initiatives or embrace change, and underrepresentation of racial, gender and ethnic minorities in leadership positions.

In your experience, what are the most effective strategies for ensuring the successful implementation of health programmes at the grassroots level?

I always tell my staff and students that before they implement any programme, especially at grassroots level, it is important to conduct a community needs assessment to understand the specific health needs/challenges and have knowledge of the resources available within that community so they can tailor their interventions to address the issues that are most pressing.

It is also crucial to immerse oneself in the community of interest. You can’t go in looking like a complete outsider and expect to gain their trust. You need to fit in to get the buy-in of stakeholders and community members, and this is why it is imperative that one is culturally humble, competent, and sensitive.

A public health or nurse leader must be adaptable and flexible to changing community needs, and be receptive to feedback from the programme beneficiaries, community leaders, volunteers, and staff.

From the outset, start developing sustainability plans to ensure that such programmes can be maintained beyond initial funding or support, identifying alternative funding sources and collaborating with internal and external stakeholders. Prioritise fostering partnerships that will help you achieve desirable programme outcomes.

How do you measure the impact and effectiveness of these health programmes? Can you provide some insights into your evaluation methods?

I have always been a fan of researching and using existing evidence-based tools to guide the evaluation of public health programmes and measure impact and effectiveness.

More generally, it is important to assess the health outcomes but looking at morbidity, mortality, and the disease incidence/prevalence before and after implementing the programme.

Assessing behavioural changes is valuable. For example, you can measure changes in health-related behaviours such as smoking cessation, increased physical activity, improved nutrition, and adherence to preventive measures. Such assessments can be done using surveys and interviews to assess behaviour change.

Evaluation to determine programme effectiveness can be conducted in stages e.g., formative, process/implementation evaluation, outcome/effectiveness evaluation, and impact evaluation.

Another thing you can do is to monitor changes in healthcare utilisation patterns; for example, are they making more visits to healthcare facilities? Is there an increased uptake of preventive and care services?

It is also crucial to utilise surveillance systems to track changes in disease trends, outbreaks, and health indicators over time.

Do not underestimate the value of community feedback. Solicit feedback from programme participants, community members, and stakeholders through surveys, focus groups, and community meetings.

Can you share any lessons learnt or best practices from your experience that have significantly improved public health outcomes?

Focus on prevention! Much of the gains we have made in public health today can be attributed to prevention. Prioritising preventive measures such as vaccination, health education, and behaviour change interventions can significantly reduce the burden of disease and improve population health outcomes. Investing in prevention efforts can lead to long-term cost savings and better health outcomes.

Again, I’ll say leverage community partnerships and engage in multi-sectoral collaborations.

Have a health equity lens. It is important to recognise and address the underlying social determinants of health, such as income, education, housing, and access to healthcare affecting patients and communities to help them achieve health equity.

Use data-driven approaches to drive change. Invest in modernised, robust and efficient surveillance systems. Invest in training/workforce development and capacity building. Advocate for evidence-based policies, regulations, and legislation that promote public health and address root causes of health disparities can have a significant impact on population health outcomes.

How do you stay updated with the latest research, advancements, and best practices in the public health field?

Through networking, continuous education, professional development, engagement in scholarships and research and so on.

Are there any specific population groups or health issues that you specialise in, and what drives your passion for working with them?

As a Public Health Commissioner and co-chair of the commission in Maryland, my role entails working alongside two incredible co-chairs – Dr. Boris Lushniak and Dr. Meena Brewster and a team of experts – about a hundred commission members – to steer the commission’s efforts around assessing the key public health services and capabilities in the state and making recommendations that would improve the health of nearly 6.3 million Marylanders.

Our commission is charged with specifically assessing foundational public health areas including communicable disease control, chronic disease and injury prevention, environmental public health, maternal, child and family health, access to and linkage with clinical care. Moreover, our efforts are divided in five different workgroups (Funding, governance and organisational capabilities, workforce, data and IT, communication and public engagement) to achieve our goals.

My passion is fueled by the desire to help disadvantaged people and communities live healthier, longer lives. I am also driven by my commitment to equity and social justice.

Also, public health presents complex and ever-evolving challenges that require innovative solutions and creative problem-solving, so I am honoured to help tackle those issues and find long-lasting that would improve population health outcomes.

Are you worried about the exodus of medical professionals from Nigeria? What is the danger in this for Nigeria? What is the solution?

As recently disclosed by Nigeria’s Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Professor Ali Pate, the country which currently has only about 55,000 licensed doctors had lost about 15,000 to 16,000 doctors to developed countries in the last five years, while about 17,000 have been transferred. Similarly, the federal government recently reported that nearly 42,000 nurses have left Nigeria in three years.

The Nigerian government has promised that through the ‘Renewed Hope Agenda’, policies will be implemented that would improve the country’s healthcare system. The government also shared that they are taking crucial steps to mitigate some of these challenges (for example, by expanding training offerings, improving working environments, addressing the issue of long working hours, and the case of Nursing and Midwifery Council of Nigeria (NMCN) setting new certificate verification requirements for Nigerian nurses and other health workers seeking verification of certificate(s) to foreign nursing boards or councils to have two years post-qualification experience). About the certificate issue, some, especially nurses have suggested that the guidelines and standards are in violation of human rights.

What I am most concerned about is that if those efforts put forth by the government are not substantive enough, this brain drain phenomenon will pose even more significant dangers for Nigeria’s health care system that is already severely understaffed and under-resourced to meet the citizens’ challenging health care needs.

In your opinion, what are some of the emerging challenges and opportunities that the public health sector needs to address in Nigeria in the coming years?

In Nigeria, like in many other countries, the public health sector faces a range of emerging challenges and opportunities that require attention in the coming years. Some of these include infectious disease control and preparedness, chronic and non-communicable diseases, maternal child health, environmental health, health security and emergency response, and so on.

I believe the challenges create unique opportunities for Nigeria to:

1. Strengthen primary healthcare delivery, increase healthcare financing, and prioritise improving health workforce training and retention.

2. The country could also benefit from reinforcing existing prevention efforts and improving access to screening and treatment services. For example, enhancing access to prenatal care, skilled birth attendance, postnatal care, and family planning services can help improve maternal and child health outcomes.

3. More efforts should be directed towards addressing disparities in health outcomes that persist across socio-economic, geographic, and demographic lines in Nigeria.

4. Invest in health information systems, data collection tools, and capacity building for data analysis to improve the effectiveness of public health interventions.

5. Leverage emerging technologies such as telemedicine, mobile health (mHealth), and digital health solutions to enhance healthcare delivery, improve access to services, and empower individuals to manage their health more effectively.

Tell us about being appointed by Governor Wes Moore of Maryland and made history as the first Black woman to serve as State Commissioner and Co-Chair of the newly established Commission on Public Health

Being appointed to Maryland’s inaugural public health commission as co-chair and first African woman to lead such delegation has filled me with a sense of humility, joy, and pride. I remember I was as the beauty salon when I first received the news of my appointment. I screamed joyfully and at the same time, tears rolled down my eyes. As a black woman and immigrant from Nigeria, I recognised the significance of that very moment in history, not only for myself but for the countless individuals who look like me but have historically been underrepresented in positions of leadership, particularly in the field of public health.

My tenure, which officially started in June 2023, was meant to last for two years, but there has been a recent legislative amendment that would potentially extend that timeline, allowing our commission additional time to complete the assessments and provide substantive recommendations.

What way/s do you understand health policy issues, including the complexities of healthcare systems, public health challenges, and the legislative process?

One key word you mentioned is “complexity”. Health systems are complex everywhere and require a multifaceted approach that encompasses the intricacies of the healthcare system, public health challenges, and the legislative process. A comprehensive understanding of health policy issues in the U.S. requires interdisciplinary expertise, collaboration across sectors, and a commitment to evidence-based policymaking, stakeholder engagement, and continuous evaluation and improvement. Since 2018, I have been involved in local and state-wide policy advocacy efforts that have led to meaningful legislative changes and improved the health outcomes of Marylanders.

Share more with us on your leadership and advocacy, which has served as a trailblazer and catalyst for meaningful legislative changes that have improved the health outcomes of Marylanders and promoted equity and social justice

In addition to serving as a state public health commissioner and teaching as a full-time nursing professor in Baltimore, I currently volunteer with a local non-profit called the Maryland Public Health Association (MdPHA), as co-chair of their Advocacy Committee. MdPHA is one of the oldest and most vibrant state affiliates of the American Public Health Association dedicated to increasing health equity for Marylanders through advocacy and community collaborations. In my role, I am responsible for monitoring health-related legislation in the state and working closing with my team to make recommendations as needed. I also provide or seek expert testimony on appropriate legislation, and assist in developing education programmes for policy makers, members of the legislature, and the public. My goal is to continue lending my voice to promote equity and social justice.

How are you using your non-profit organisations, Food and Care For All, Inc (FCFA) and Meals for Kidz Initiative (MFKI) as platforms to reach and empower underserved communities and disadvantaged populations, especially young girls and women?

Through my non-profit organisation, Food and Care for All Inc (FCFA) which was founded in 2019, my team and I have been able to promote food security and access to health services for underserved communities in the U.S. and some regions of sub-Saharan Africa. I cannot forget my visit to Nigeria in May 2019 when FCFA hosted an international outreach event and delivered comprehensive food packages including a bag of rice, beans, garri, canned milk, tea bags, sugar and salt to each of the 300 families we served across Ila-Orangun, Ifedayo, and Boluwaduro Local Government in Osun State.

I enjoy going back home a lot and I can categorically tell you that since 2019, I’ve made multiple visits to Nigeria using FCFA and MFKI as platforms to reach and empower underserved communities and disadvantaged populations across the country, especially young girls and women, providing them with free food, health education, and sexual health services. I still have memories of my visit to Nigeria in November 2021 when FCFA partnered with local and U.S based stakeholders to host the ‘Fund a Pad Outreach Event’ at the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp, Abuja, where 200 young girls and women were educated on menstrual health and hygiene, and also provided with free menstrual kits containing soap and sanitary pads that would last each girl for approximately 5-6 months.

In 2021, I had the opportunity of establishing Meals for Kidz Initiative (MFKI), a non-profit organisation based in Nigeria to reduce food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health in needy children through the provision of healthy and nutritional breakfast and lunch to partnering schools in underserved communities at no cost. MFKI aims to combat hunger in the school system and foster a better learning environment for all children.

FCFA has a facility in Ellicott City, Maryland, United States where we serve nearly 500 families who visit frequently to access food from our pantry, clothing, personal, household, and menstrual hygiene products, flu vaccinations, harm reduction training, and screening for HIV/STIs at no cost.

We also offer support groups on chronic disease prevention and management, refugee and immigrant support. At FCFA, we cannot overstate the importance of prioritising prevention, community engagement, and health equity. We also currently engage in global health education initiatives whereby our graduate students from accredited U.S schools of nursing and public health are trained to deliver virtual education sessions on preventive health topics to primary and secondary school students in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

You have intervened through your NGO at Iresi, Osun State, Nigeria. Let us into the details of this intervention

In 2021, through partnership a another organisation, I had the privilege of sponsoring the renovation and commissioning of a new sick bay (with a stationed nurse) at Baptist Grammar School, which is in my hometown of Iresi, Osun State, Nigeria. The sickbay affords no less than 169 students, 19 staff members, and other individuals in the community the opportunity to receive free health care services (including health education and treatment) thereby improving their health, increasing their knowledge about health and diseases, and promoting school attendance. As a healthcare professional, I am keen on fostering collaborations and partnerships across borders and working with organisations home and abroad to maximise impact and ultimately improve the health and wellbeing of populations served.

You have done quite a lot locally and on the global scene. If you were asked to come home to effect changes in Nigeria, What are the changes you would effect and how do you intend to go about it?

As someone who was born and raised in Nigeria through early university years, I have a deep understanding of some challenges that are unique to the country’s healthcare system. I am also sensitised to the issues around health disparities, workforce shortage, and limited access to healthcare. The United States has its own healthcare challenges too and continues to make efforts for improvements.

According to Dr. Paul Farmer, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” I am someone who believes that every life is just as precious as the next regardless of geographical borders. Therefore, I have a profound sense of responsibility to contribute to improving healthcare outcomes not just locally, but globally. Right in this moment, I cannot speak to the specifics, but Nigeria remains near and dear to my heart.

What hope do you have for Nigeria?

I am hopeful that Nigeria will take back its position as a leading force for progress and development in Africa and the world. This can be achieved if the country and citizens commit to good governance including fighting corruption, economic diversification, investment in education and healthcare, and social inclusion.

Concluding words

As a female leader and mother of two young children, I strongly believe societies can benefit significantly from investing in young girls and women. Empowering this subgroup is not only a moral imperative, but a strategic investment in shaping a brighter future for all. By providing access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and leadership roles, we can unravel their infinite potential. Empowered girls and women drive positive societal change, foster economic growth, and promote sustainable development. It is time we commit to breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and championing equality to create a world where every girl and woman can thrive, and ultimately transform our shared future for the better.