Christopher Westgard Works to Advance Maternal and Child Health in Peru
Christopher Westgard, doctoral candidate in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
For Christopher Westgard –– a doctoral candidate in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health –– his diverse academic background is rooted in a long-held interest in the health and wellbeing of children.
While his current research focuses on implementation science as it relates to programs for child health, nutrition and early childhood development, his path originally began with his undergraduate studies in psychology and philosophy at East Carolina University (ECU). Westgard’s initial interest was in improving and developing moral and ethical training tools for children. After studying abroad in Argentina and the Netherlands, and studying the work of the United Nations, his interests expanded to include international development.
Westgard then earned a master’s degree in international studies at ECU and a master’s in public policy with a certificate in global health at University of Washington. Both programs strengthened his expertise in global health and public policy and connected him to community-based work in India and Cambodia. With a renewed interest in maternal and child health, he received a global health fellowship through the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health. Through this competitive award, he conducted research, monitored and evaluated community health agent (CHA) programs for child health and nutrition in the Peruvian mountains and Amazon.
After working for a local Peruvian NGO, where he felt that there was a lack of capacity to integrate research and recommendations for improvement, Westgard partnered with a local colleague to found Elementos, an NGO aimed at directly improving programs and policies for child health in the region. As the principle investigator, Westgard secured a grant through Saving Brains to fund Elementos’ efforts in Peru to support community health agents –– typically women who live in the local communities and volunteer as health advocates. The community health agents are using the mHealth tool, a digital application developed by Elementos that guides them through home visits with the aim of making the visits more structured and educational.
“Additionally, the mHealth tool gives us the ability to collect data and share it with the community health posts, identify where illnesses are taking place, track epidemics before they get too widespread,” Westgard says. It is providing the local health system important information that was previously unavailable.
Westgard and his team have also developed a guide for community health agents to use during their home visits, with each page addressing a different health topic –– for example, how to treat water to make it safe for drinking and how to alleviate diarrhea in a young child. The health messages were also made into animated videos and included in the mHealth tool so that they can be shared with mothers and children during home visits.
After five years in Peru, Westgard notes that he hit a ceiling with his capability to perform successful research and design scalable programs, leading him to pursue further training in the field of public health and implementation science. That’s when he connected with Herbert Peterson, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Westgard describes implementation science as the study of how to better apply successful innovations in diverse and complex settings. “For example, we know how to treat malaria, but implementation science helps to identify why our solutions don’t work in the field and how we can replicate and scale solutions in diverse settings,” he says. “My goal in working with Dr. Peterson as my mentor is to improve my capabilities in the application of implementation science in Peru, and how it can be used in community settings.”
While in graduate school at Carolina, Westgard will continue to serve as director for Elementos, overseeing the grant project and traveling back to the region every three to four months to assess progress and implement adjustments. On his next visit he hopes to bring other UNC-Chapel Hill students with him to help in his assessment.
“Over the next few months we’ll be constantly monitoring the implementation of the mHealth tool, conducting design reiterations for measuring and improving our strategies,” Westgard says.
If Westgard and his team can demonstrate successful results when the Saving Brains program grant ends, he says they will have the option to apply for a second phase of funding and scale the project to communities across Peru, with the ultimate goal of perfecting the mHealth tool and making it freely available to CHA programs worldwide. After that, Westgard says, the possibilities are endless.