Public Health: Andrew Likaka

Andrew Likaka is making a difference in public health systems across several areas of Malawi’s Ministry of Health, including digital health, quality management, blood transfusion and COVID-19.

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Andrew graduated with a Master of Public Health in 2015 and is now a medical doctor, global health specialist and Director of Quality Management and Digital Health with the Malawi Ministry of Health.

Why the University of Melbourne?

I was looking for universities globally that offered programs with personalised professional growth in public health. I had received several offers from various universities, but the University of Melbourne’s, Public Health and Global Health Programs resonated well with my vision.

I have never regretted my decision because I got the skills I needed to establish several programs, and even whole departments, in the Ministry of Health in Malawi.

What are your strongest memories of university?

Community support and the feeling of being part of a great family when the University stood with me at a time of loss, when my brother passed away in Malawi. I cherish the support and quick response of the University at that time.

What goals did you set yourself and have you stuck to that plan?

To be a global health/public health (health systems) leader in my country and abroad. I have maintained this goal and using the skills and knowledge I gained, am rising up the ladder!

I was Chief Medical Officer when I finished my studies, appointed to lead a quality management program in the health sector. I was then appointed Director of the Quality Management Department in the Ministry of Health two years after graduation.

Later I was appointed to lead the digital health program on top of the quality management. The department grew to be called Quality Management and Digital Health.

From November 2020, I was seconded to head the Malawi Blood Transfusion Services as Medical Director for a period of three years. For the first time we have managed to achieve the organisational national target of 90,000 blood units collected in 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a great improvement from an average of 72,000 annually since 2003.

Tell us more about your role and how university helped you prepare for it.

I am a health systems strengthening expert. My studies in public health, especially health program evaluation, global health program design, implementation and evaluation, health policy and health systems gave me skills to address the immediate task I was given when I returned to Malawi.

I was asked to design a health program that would address health challenges at that time. There was huge outcry in my country for better services citing high maternal mortality, low client satisfaction with health services, inadequate drugs, and poor infrastructure in the public sector.

By using these skills, I was able to design a national quality program, and later digital program, that have been adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and am engaged to support other countries to establish similar structures with support from WHO.

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

Passion to initiate change and bring a difference in the health sector. Confidence from other people and trust in my abilities give me opportunities to take up responsibilities. I love it when I contribute to saving a life in all that I do.

Whenever I hear that we did not have medicines at this clinic last week but today they are available, or when I hear stories like ‘oooh we can get any patient to operating theatre nowadays without challenges with getting blood’, it makes my heart happy.

What does a normal day at work look like for you?

I always create goals when appointed to any position. I am employed to solve problems. I take time to define the problem, understand the processes to make changes, and outline quick wins.

This defines how I start every day at work, making sure that I have time to interact with staff, attend to many strategic meetings and also look at my own health and state of mind and family.

What is your driving force for doing your best at work?

Belief that I have a contribution to make in the world no matter how small, no matter the time, no matter how long it takes and no matter the place!

What books, texts, or thinkers inspire you in your profession?

The Bible is my biggest motivation! Do not let anyone suppress your potential, discover what you are good at and be the best that you can be in your lane!

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Be people centred at your organisation and you will achieve more, work as a team and you will go far in leadership, be a man or woman of integrity and you will conquer the opposition to your leadership, be humble to grow, appreciate everyone, they have a place in your life!

How important is work life balance?

Very important. There are times I face almost burnout due to pressures at work. In some cases, I have to travel to different countries, almost three times a month. I have to delegate some duties. I make sure I do exercises at home in the morning and evening, have time for myself to meditate and listen to music.

On weekends, I leave most work-related issues and take time out with family. I have rabbits and chickens at home around my yard and I spend time to feed them during weekends.

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in your life?

Booking an appointment with the President of Malawi to express my disappointment with the status of health services in the country and opposition I was facing to carry out my work when I was just a junior staff member in the Ministry of Health.

What achievement are you most proud of?

  • Promoting access for Highly Active Anti-Retroviral (ARVs) Therapy for HIV in rural areas in Malawi
  • Spearheading and leading on Option B+ that has now become a global initiative in prevention of HIV transmission from mother to child
  • Designing and establishing [a] health system model in Neno District in Malawi
  • Establishing [the] Quality Management and Digital Health Department in Malawi
  • Leading the global network to improve quality of care for maternal and newborn health.

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve learned?

Despite all the energy and enthusiasm, I cannot do everything. I will only be able to contribute something but not all. Some reforms will be realised after my retirement or death.

What advice do you have for current students?

Determination is key to achieving personal goals. Not everything we aspire to change will be achieved in our time or place but do something to contribute to the change.

What are some career highlights and what’s next?

I was offered a scholarship by the Gates Foundation to enhance my public health leadership skills at the Evans School of Public Health, University of Washington, for a year after my studies in Melbourne. [I’ve] done a year-long Quality in Healthcare Advisory Program at IHI, in Boston, USA and many courses in Japan and Egypt.

I am doing an Executive Master of Business Administration with Quantic School of Business Technology in the USA and graduating in November 2022 as part of enhancing my leadership and management skills. UNICEF offered me scholarship to enrol in a PhD at the University College London (UK) and Universidade de Pernambuco (Brazil). I have done two years and [it is] on hold due to [the] COVID-19 pandemic but will finish by 2024.

I am looking forward to becoming one of the global leaders in global health!

What does being successful mean to you?

Bringing smiles in the lives of people who cannot afford a smile; bringing hope to people who are hopeless; saving lives that would have otherwise been lost.

Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you like to invite for dinner?

Street kids. They have stories and aspirations that may drive my passion and dreams. Their stories will remind me that it is a privilege to be a public health leader.