Lorne Chi – Keeping the Knives Sharp

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Former IBBME Grad Lorne Chi Engineers Solutions to Disease in Developing Nations

6 March, 2013

Sometimes it’s not all about the money. Just ask Lorne Chi, who has been working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the Ugandan government to create access to affordable antimalarials and diagnostic tests to battle malaria.

At a special Options Talk with Engineering Science students in February, Chi laid out his career path through the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s Engineering Science program (Biomedical Option), followed by an MASc in Biomedical Engineering in 2008.

“I came out of U of T not knowing what to do,” Chi admitted to the forty plus Engineering students at the lecture. “I was making great money as a management consultant doing really interesting things, but ultimately it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Chi wanted to make an impact.

He briefly jumped into the Ministry of Health for the province of Ontario in the hopes of creating lasting change for Ontario’s 11 million residents. One of his projects was charting the “Oprah Effect” and its impact on the public health system and resources.

“One day Dr. Phil mentioned the importance of being tested for Vitamin D deficiency, and from that point testing rates and costs soared,” Chi explained. Charting this phenomenon allowed the Government to swiftly enact regulation to limit testing of this widely available and cheap vitamin to only those in high risk categories. The move saved the Ontario government millions in negotiations with its lab testing partners, not to mention vital health resources.

But by 2010 Chi was ready for a challenge. Encouraged by a friend, Chi jumped into the Clinton Health Access Initiative, a not-for profit organization begun by US president Bill Clinton that works with industry and governments in developing nations to create affordable strategies to treat some of the world’s most rampant diseases and reduce infant mortality rates. CHAI’s strategies include creating larger markets for medicines and diagnostics, lowering the costs of treatments, and expanding access to life-saving drugs and technologies based on sustainable models that can be owned and maintained by country governments.

Chi was brought on board to support the Ugandan Ministry of Health design and implement a strategy to expand access to malaria medicines in Uganda.

Malaria is still a leading cause of death world wide, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010 alone, malaria is estimated to have infected 216 million people, causing 655,000 deaths. The CDC reports that 91% of these deaths are thought to have been in the African Region.

In Uganda, the cost of treatment for malaria in this country of 34 million is around 8 dollars per person, whereas the average working wage in the country averages 2$ per day.

Chi was part of the team that piloted a drug subsidy in 8 countries (Cambodia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Niger, Tanzania and Uganda). Through negotiations with international drug manufactures and donor funding by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the price for the drugs came down from $8 per person to a mere 50 cents.

And this small amount of money – about a quarter of the price of a cup of coffee in Canada – is making a dramatic difference to the country.

“This was a game changer in Uganda,” Chi remarks. “Use of highly effective antimalarials have doubled to over 80%, and the results will only be greater with time.”

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The lateral thinking involved in this multi-level and complex deal is something Chi credits IBBME’s unique program for teaching him.

“A way of structuring problems and thinking laterally is something I got from this program,” Chi told the Eng Sci option students.

Chi recalled that, upon graduation, his supervisor, IBBME Professor Milos Popovic, pulled him aside to impart to him invaluable advice: “Remember to keep your knives sharpened at all times.”

“For me, this meant, keep on honing your skills so you can jump on opportunities.”

And embracing opportunities is a skill that Chi has perfected.

Chi is currently focused on ensuring that rapid malaria detection tests are an integral part of the Ugandan Ministry of Health’s strategy. The Ugandan government has secured millions of these tests – at a cost of less than 30 cents per test — to ensure that everyone in Uganda had access to proper testing before being treated.

In the past 4 months, thousands health care workers have been trained on how to use malaria diagnostics tests and what to give patients who don’t have malaria.

“This is high impact work,” Chi says contentedly of a career path that sees him affecting millions of lives.