State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Health Systems Expert Wins Young Leader Award

“Tragically, the health system so often first learns about someone in the red zone when the damage is already done. What we need are a thousand wired torches, wielded by people in the community who know their neighbors best, to guide them to the right place at the right time.” — Prabhjot Singh

Prabhjot Singh, CGSD
Prabhjot Singh of the Earth Institute has received one of 10 Young Leader Awards from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Photo: © 2012 Allan Hunter Shoemak; with permission from the foundation.

Dr. Prabhjot Singh, an international health systems expert at the Earth Institute who helped design community health worker systems for the Millennium Villages Project across 10 African countries, has won a $40,000 Young Leader Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Now, he is applying some of the lessons learned in the Millennium Villages here in New York City, working with the City Health Works! program in Harlem to fight obesity and other health problems. In part, that effort will train local residents to be peer coaches who can help their neighbors develop healthier lifestyles and better utilize the health-care system.

Singh is one of 10 winners of the first-ever Young Leader Awards, which mark the 40th anniversary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The awards recognize leaders who are ages 40 or under “for their exceptional contributions to improving the health of the nation.” The awards, which come with a $40,000 prize, also signal the winners’ strong potential for future leadership, according to the foundation. (A full press release on the awards and more information on the foundation can be found on their website.)

Singh is a director of systems design for the Earth institute’s Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development, which utilizes experts in health and nutrition, food production and other areas to advise developing countries on how to build systems and policies that promote sustainable development. Singh also teaches as an assistant professor of international and public affairs at Columbia and is a resident in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

“I thought it was an amazing opportunity to really translate low resources innovations from across the world to domestic health systems like in East Harlem,” he said of the award. He said he plans to use the money to support the peer-coaching program at the non-profit City Health Works!; and making the Earth Institute a leading convener of NYC-based health system providers and payers to understand the impending deluge of community driven big data.

What does he mean by a “deluge of big data”? The spread of information technology is transforming the way public health is monitored and medicine is delivered – but Singh has a far more eloquent way of illustrating it. This is from a blog post earlier this month at

“In your mind’s eye, paint the outline of a neighborhood on a black canvas, and color it Tron with a street grid. In 3-D space, assign each person a microscopic white light, so you can see them moving around, stacked in their apartments, or scattered across streets. Now, shade that light orange or red for those people whose blood pressure is nearing or hitting the red zone. You’d see that some fraction of them get to the clinic, and another set heads straight for the emergency department, while others suffer through their symptoms or don’t feel them at all. And tragically, the health system so often first learns about someone in the red zone when the damage is already done. What we need are a thousand wired torches, wielded by people in the community who know their neighbors best, to guide them to the right place at the right time.”

“I’m passionate about enlarging the imaginative space in U.S. community health systems, in terms of expectations, organization and information utilization,” Singh said in an interview this week. “Through our work across the Millennium Villages in sub-Saharan Africa, I have seen first-hand how communities are the ultimate catalyst of systems change. City Health Works! is the scalable entity in New York City that we are working with to actually implement and try out the most appropriate innovations we have seen.”

“As we reflected on our accomplishments over the past 40 years, we also wanted to look to the future,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “During the relatively short period that our foundation has been operational, these impressive men and women were born and raised and started doing amazing things that can potentially improve the health of all Americans. We’re proud to acknowledge their early success, and inspired by the potential they have to improve U.S. health and health care.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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