Dr. Susan Mercado, one of the four nominees for regional director of the WPRO, says it is high time somebody from a developing nation who has deep understanding of the real challenges on the ground leads the organization in addressing health care disparities in 37 countries and areas across Asia and the Pacific.
The Filipina as Public Health Leader
Helen M. Flores (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2018 - 12:00am

Who is Dr. Susan Mercado?

For the first time in 68 years, a Filipino woman has taken up the challenge of leading the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Western Pacific (WPRO), bringing her more than three decades of experience in public health to ensure the well being of 1.9 billion people in the region.

Dr. Susan Mercado, one of the four nominees for regional director of the WPRO, says it is high time somebody from a developing nation who has deep understanding of the real challenges on the ground leads the organization in addressing health care disparities in 37 countries and areas across Asia and the Pacific.

“Filipino health workers, or the Filipino doctors, are well known all over the world, we are excellent as health care providers. But what the world doesn’t know is that the Philippines is also a producer of excellent public health leaders,” Mercado tells STARweek.

“We don’t have a steep learning curve in learning or understanding what’s happening in an island because we come from a nation of islands. We don’t have a steep learning curve in understanding the difficulties of delivering services in rural areas or addressing the problems of the poor because that’s a day-to-day thing to do, it’s a common thing to us,” she says.

The 59-year-old former undersecretary of health also believes having a female leader would contribute to a more inclusive WHO because of the woman’s personal experiences as a mother, a teacher and a health care provider.

“I would venture to say that women and girls are disproportionately affected by a lot of health conditions. Issues such as gender are of course best understood by women. I don’t actually need to see the data or quote it because I experience it,” she says.

Mercado says her training at the Philippine General Hospital as a medical student at the University of the Philippines prepared her for public health.

“I’ve always been interested in public health, in improving the health of the people,” she says.

Mercado graduated magna cum laude with a degree in AB Philosophy from the University of the Philippines. She obtained her Doctor of Medicine and Masters in Public Health degrees from the same university.

After graduating from college, Mercado worked at the Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko Foundation, a non-profit, non-government organization working for the well being of indigent Filipinos.

Mercado’s husband, former senator and defense secretary Orly Mercado, is among the hosts of Kapwa Ko Mahal Ko, a public affairs program which airs every Saturday on GMA-7.

“I worked at the Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko Foundation where on a daily basis you would see dozens of people who were very poor. We were dealing with a lot of cancer patients, people who needed simple things like wheelchairs and that has shaped my thoughts about how public health in the world should be,” Mercado says.

From 1992 to 1994, Mercado was chief executive assistant to then health secretary Juan Flavier.

She served as Department of Health undersecretary and chief of staff under then health secretary Alberto Romualdez Jr. from 1998 to 2001.

Mercado says the biggest challenge for all countries and for all ministers of health in particular is how to make healthcare available to every citizen.

“For me I would like the WHO to be like that. To be about putting an end to indifference, about the way that poor people have almost nothing and the others have everything,” she says.

“The real problem in health is equity,” Mercado underscores. 

As part of her campaign, Mercado listens to health ministers and tries to help them find solutions to problems.

She notes that a number of Pacific island countries would like to have dialysis centers because they have so many cases of patients with complications of diabetes.

“I believe that governments are looking for more of a collegial WHO, more of a WHO that leads by their side, more of a horizontal leadership,” she says. 

Mercado is known for her work in tobacco control, health promotion and prevention and control of non-communicable disease.

She has served at the WPRO for 15 years as director for Non-communicable Diseases and Health through the Life-course; as regional adviser for health promotion and as team leader for urban health equity of the WHO Kobe Center in Japan as well as the WPRO’s Tobacco Free Initiative.

When she resigned from the WHO last year, Mercado joined the Philippine Red Cross, where she initiated efforts to prepare communities for health emergencies. 

In April this year, President Duterte appointed her Special Envoy for Global Health Initiatives.

Should she become the next regional director of the WHO, Mercado says she would continue her work on tobacco control and prevention of non-communicable diseases. 

She would also focus on the treatment of cancer, heart disease and diabetes as well as mental health, particularly among the youth.

“I feel that this (mental health) is the issue among young people now, bullying, addictions, risky behaviors. The youth would be a priority for me,” she says.

Mercado is thankful for the overwhelming support she is getting from the Philippine government as well as from her family in her candidacy.

“We are critical of our President but as I’ve traveled around I have heard a lot of praise for how he is standing. He has put the Philippines on a different kind of international footing. We are now actually a nation to contend with. Despite the things that has been said about him, countries are looking at us with respect and that has been very helpful for me,” she says.

For the last 68 years, Mercado says the WPRO has been led by only two countries, Japan and Korea.

The election for the next WHO regional director in the Western Pacific will be held this October at the 69th Regional Committee Meeting in Manila.

Apart from Mercado, the other nominees are from Malaysia, Japan and New Zealand. Malaysia has also nominated a woman candidate.

“I’m taking this all the way to the end and I think we are trying to change something here and it’s extraordinary. It is about a developing country, it is about a woman, and it is about horizontal leadership,” Mercado says.

REGIONAL OFFICE FOR WESTERN PACIFIC SUSAN MERCADO WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
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