By Meleah Maynard, Photo courtesy of Merck
As a principal scientist at Merck & Co. in Philadelphia, Agam Sheth (Ph.D. ’04) can usually be found in the lab developing innovative medicines for the healthcare company. Recently, though, he traveled to Delhi, India, to help improve maternal health.
India is one of 30 countries where Merck for Mothers, a 10-year, $500 million global initiative, is working to reduce maternal mortality. Sheth was assigned to the project after being accepted for Merck’s Fellowship for Global Health, which matches the expertise of a select number of employees with the needs of partner organizations. “It’s quite an honor to be selected, and it’s a cause I feel passionate about, so I was really happy to have the opportunity to help with this project,” he says.
During his three-month assignment, Sheth and another Merck fellow worked closely with Delhi-based staff from the Centre for Development and Population Activities (now the Centre for Catalyzing Change), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of girls and women in developing countries. Sheth and his colleague’s mission: to help build a voice response mobile phone system that would allow impoverished women in remote villages who were pregnant, or had just given birth, to report their experiences. Ultimately, the goal is to hold the healthcare system accountable through peer and community reporting, thus improving health care delivery. “Many women in rural India don’t access institutions for care or childbirth, but even when they do, the quality of care is variable,” Sheth explains. “The phones give voice to the voiceless by allowing them to call a number and have their experiences recorded, so they can provide important feedback about the quality of their visit.” Feedback from the women will be used to create a rating system that, once made public, may spur health care providers to improve their practices. It will also help families make more informed choices about care.
Working in Delhi helped Sheth put a human face on what he does every day. He and other members of the team made trips to the villages and talked with women one on one. “In the region we visited, almost everyone is illiterate, poverty is widespread, and you have to wonder what keeps them going,” he says. “It really made me think about how important it is to understand what people need and to continue to put patients first.”