HEAL Spotlight: Renzo Guinto

  • Name: Ramon Lorenzo Luis Rosa Guinto, MD, DrPH
  • Nickname: Renzo
  • Originated from: Calamba City, Philippines
  • Global public health areas of expertise: Planetary health (including climate change), global health, public health, health systems
  • Educational background: Doctor of Public Health, Harvard University; Doctor of Medicine, University of the Philippines Manila; additional postgraduate training from the University of Oxford, University of Copenhagen, University of the Western Cape, and East-West Center in Hawaii, among others
  • Best advice you’ve ever received: Bloom where you are planted.
  • Advice you’d give to emerging global public health professionals: When you are “cooking up” your own public health career, do not forget that you need at least three main ingredients: passion, strategy, and direction.
  • Twitter handle: @RenzoGuinto
  • Other social media handles: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renzoguinto/

Your story

I was a reluctant medical student. In fact, when I was younger, I never imagined becoming a physician myself. I have multiple passions—social sciences, humanities, biology, etc. When I was in high school, I thought maybe I’ll be a journalist, an engineer like my dad, a literature professor, a marine biologist, etc. When I applied for college and took the entrance exams, I got accepted to my first choice—business administration—with the hope that it can be my steppingstone to a law degree. But when I also got invited by the medical school at the University of the Philippines (UP), which had this accelerated program where high school students jump straight to medical training (saving two years from the typical nine-year journey), I thought that maybe this was God’s calling. I decided to take the chance.

During the first two years in medical school, I thought I would quit and go back to economics or biology. But UP has a strong public service character, encouraging students to be part of nation building. That is how I encountered the defects of the Philippine healthcare system. During my second year as a pre-med student, our class visited rural communities and I witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by the poor. My teacher also taught me how to facilitate a community discussion in a respectful and engaging way. “This is so exciting,” I thought.

During that time, I also took a short course in global health and realized I really loved this space—in global health, you study politics, culture, history, and so much more. I thought, “Let me finish medical school first and pursue a career in public health.” And that is what I ended up doing. I became a doctor who does not treat patients in the emergency room, but one that seeks to prevent people from even entering it.

Part of my motivation in entering the public health field is my personality. I would say I have a generally outgoing personality–I love working with people, and love excitement and adventure. Medicine of course is a noble profession–even as a public health professional, that remains in my core. However, with my interests, work style, and even temperament, I thought public health was the better option. Public health also allowed me to utilize all my passions and interests—for instance, the humanities, social sciences, economics, anthropology—all of which are critical in addressing broad issues in health and not only tackling problems faced by individual patients.

Today, especially in the COVID-19 era, there is a huge need for public health. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of public health practitioners worldwide. When there is a need and a shortage, then there is an opportunity. And to take advantage of this window of opportunity, one must know how to lead and to be entrepreneurial.

Finally, I want to encourage the students who may be considering a career in global public health. When I was a medical student, I was already deeply involved in activities related to community health, national health policy, and eventually international health. I became very active in the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA)—a global network of medical students from around the world. I started as president of IFMSA’s Philippine branch, served as regional coordinator for Asia-Pacific, and then eventually became liaison officer to the World Health Organization (WHO). In this position, I played the role of an ambassador–linking together 1.2 million medical students and the WHO. That was my first encounter with global health politics.

Renzo with the health workers of Alabat Island in the Philippines

Inner Lantern glow-up 

  • What’s your current life motto: “If given the choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”
  • How did you progress from general public health to planetary health: We live in this era where our health is shaped by massive changes in the environment—ecological damage and disruption generated by human activities. Because the planet is being destroyed, it in turn affects us in terms of new diseases from air pollution-related respiratory illnesses and even infectious disease pandemics such as COVID-19 which emanate from disturbance in natural habitats.

    We know that the concept of planetary health is still quite new—the seminal report in The Lancet that laid its foundations was released only in 2015, But, as early as medical school, I was already working on various environmental initiatives. One of the first triggers for me was when I saw Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” My home, Philippines, is historically frequented by typhoons emanating from the Western Pacific, which are now increasing in number and severity as a result of climate change. When my eyes were first opened to the issue of climate change, I thought, “Wow, this is not merely an environmental issue, but a public health one.” During that time, there were very few doctors and health professionals who were talking about climate change from a health standpoint. Today, more than a decade later, we are a much bigger community of climate and health advocates, but the issue is still yet to become part of mainstream global health.

    Those were my early beginnings in planetary health. Also, when I was a medical student, I established the first environmental health organization in my university. I rallied nursing, pharmacy students, physicians, and even professors to help clean the Manila Bay, adopt sustainable waste management policy in the university, participate in reforestation activities, among others. When I became a physician, then a public health professional, and then a doctoral student at Harvard, it was not a surprise that climate change and planetary health continued to animate my work in health even after medical school.

    Having said that, I always say I am more of a ‘global health generalist.’ I have projects on climate change, but I also work on issues as diverse as universal health coverage, migrant health, health promotion, among others – because everything is interconnected. In public health, we need less siloing and instead more integration and systems thinking. We need to be able to see the big picture while also addressing the specific issues that we care about and want to specialize in. This is also what I always convey to my students and mentees.
Renzo’s “Nuestra Planeta, Nuestra Salud” (Our Planet, Our Health) presentation, delivered at the Congreso del Futuro, Santiago, Chile, January 2017
  • Lessons learned over the last year or so: There are many. What I say to students is, “Don’t wait until you graduate to make the connections, to network with colleagues, to study the landscape.” You not only want to be able to work right after graduation so you can pay your student loans–you surely want to do impactful work that will also make you happy. It takes time to find those opportunities, so start doing your homework ASAP.

    This is not to say you just write endless cold emails or stalk someone through LinkedIn. Instead, there are smart, respectful, and sustainable ways of networking with potential mentors and collaborators, who are all busy people. Do not send a message saying, “Can you help me go to grad school?” What you must do is try to forge a relationship. You can begin by demonstrating that you have read their scholarship, are knowledgeable about the field, and feel curious about their work. We all know we need to network and build connections, but in order to be successful, there is a right technique to do that, and this must be part of your toolkit for success.
  • What were your motivations to pursue a DrPH as opposed to a PhD or other degrees: After several years of working in public health, I felt I needed some post-graduate degree to boost my credibility and qualifications. If I want to rise in the ranks, expand my connections, and do much more than what I was already doing without a degree, then I must pursue an advanced training in public health. Ultimately, advanced education in public health would allow me to challenge my own ideas and even create my own. When I was applying, I decided to cast a wide net, even to gamble, to test my readiness. I applied to four different programs: MPH at Johns Hopkins, MSc in Health Policy, Planning and Financing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and DrPH and PhD at Harvard. I said to myself, “You know what, there’s nothing to lose.”

    I got admitted to the two Master programs. The PhD program got back to me, in effect saying, “You’re not PhD material.” Meanwhile, the DrPH program welcomed me with open arms, in a way telling me, “You know what, you’re a future public health leader.” They even provided me with a full scholarship.

    I am very grateful for my Harvard DrPH education–there is no doubt that it further bolstered my career significantly. I will admit that my ideas for the future of health are quite visionary in timeframe and national, if not planetary, in scale. I knew I needed to be in an environment and to have an education that will set me for success, give me the tools for getting things done. The Harvard DrPH program was not only innovative; it really allowed me to expand my horizons. I was able to take classes in the law school, business school, design school, school of government. During my stay there, I met presidents of at least five countries and countless government and business leaders in America. I was also able to participate in numerous exciting projects–from improving cancer care in Chile to addressing climate change in Alaska.

    With a Harvard DrPH degree, I could have worked in McKinsey or WHO or Harvard, but I decided to fly back home right after graduation. It was clear to me that I would be most useful and have the greatest opportunity to actualize my highest potential for leadership if I returned home, to help build lasting institutions, enhance domestic capacity in research and practice, and solve real challenges on the ground, as opposed to sitting at a desk in one of the global health capitals, writing reports that very few people will read. Here in the Philippines, especially in the time of COVID-19 pandemic, I get to advise governments and businesses, collaborate with fellow scholars and practitioners to study and address pressing health problems, design a new global health program not in the Global North but in the Global South–while still being engaged in the global conversation about the world’s health. Of course, every person has her preferences and circumstances, and this happens to be my public health story.
Renzo taking a selfie with international youth leaders in a conference in South Korea
  • Advice to students applying to graduate school: When it comes to applying for graduate school, of course, you need a powerful motivation letter, an impressive CV, good recommendation letters, above-average exam scores, etc. But remember: be more than a statistic; be a story.

    There are a lot of smart people in the US and around the world who have high GRE scores. You need to stand out. The way to stand out is to not only meet the minimum requirements but to demonstrate a well-rounded background and leadership potential in global public health. Admission committees are not looking for geniuses, but for future change agents. In your personal statement, interviews, recommendation letters, etc., you must be able to convey that you have a broad understanding of public health, a rich and wide experience in research, teaching (even in informal ways), publishing (commentaries and blogs cannot be belittled), and practice at local, national, and if possible international levels, so you can get into the program and school that you dream about.

    It takes years of preparation, especially for us folks in the Global South. There are many hurdles we need to overcome–from language barriers to academic qualifications to expensive global health exchanges (which unfortunately has become “voluntourism”). But there are other ways to catch the admission committee’s attention–they can be impressed not just by one’s grades but can be inspired by one’s story. They want to know if you are worth investing in–for instance, if you are someone who will return and give back to your home country or work for WHO to help solve pressing health problems worldwide.

    This advice can be useful for those who wish to pursue a public health career, but especially for those who dream of becoming global health leaders. I believe everyone has leadership potential, but some youth are more explicit and intentional. I would love for those people who dream for something bigger than themselves to realize their aspirations, and hopefully this advice will be of great help.

    Another advice I always give to those planning to go to graduate school is to not get stuck in the school of public health. In places like Harvard, public health is embedded in a larger university setting. There is nothing to stop you. Explore and experiment. It is up to you to make the most of where you are. When I was at Harvard, I was telling my classmates “YOHO—”You’re only at Harvard once.” (A wordplay of YOLO–“You only live once.”)
  • What is one of your proudest accomplishments: This is where the imposter syndrome comes in. Honestly, sometimes I feel I have not done that much yet. Part of me thinks it will take time for my contributions to bear fruit–say in terms of lives saved or generations inspired. But that is the very essence of public health–the impact is not immediate but hopefully long-lasting.

    But on the other hand, in my young career and life so far, I could say that one contribution I have made is to push the boundaries of global health, advance new ideas, and challenge the way we think about health in the 21st century, whether in the Philippines or internationally. When I was younger, I was very involved in the social determinants of health movement and climate and health discourse. Eventually, when the concept of planetary health was born, I was one of the first to embrace it–now people call me ‘Dr. Planetary Health.’ More recently, I have staunchly advocated for ‘decolonizing’ global health–to ensure that equity and justice are manifested not just in the outcomes of global health, but also in its operations.

    Now, I have returned to the Philippines to help create communities, build institutions, fix chronic problems, and prepare the next generation of health leaders. Hopefully in the future, I will be given the chance to serve in national government and even an international agency like the WHO. For now, I have to do my homework while creating impact on people’s lives, so that when the phone rings and the person on the other end of the line asks, “Can you do this?”, my answer would be a resounding “Yes.” Because I am ready.
Renzo moderating a session at Harvard with Gina McCarthy, President Biden’s National Climate Advisor and former Administrator of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama
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