AIGHD In Person: Frank van Leth

For Assoc. Prof. Frank van Leth, research is more than just a career – it’s a passion that he hopes will help improve health care around the world.

“For me, the purpose of research has never been to do it just for the sake of doing it. I always approach it with a goal of benefiting someone or something in the world. As researchers, our work should always have a clear goal.”

This stands out as a principle that has guided van Leth throughout his career.

Use of routine data to measure effectiveness of interventions

As a young doctor working in the tropics, he spent four years as a Medical Officer in-charge at the 170-bed Misikhu Mission Hospital in Kenya. The hospital, always full with patients, inspired him to think about all the data that gets collected in the healthcare system.

“What inspires me is that we have so much data we can use to optimize treatment, improve prevention, surveil antimicrobial resistance and so on. I hope to develop tools that can be used in many different countries for better data collection and analysis, to ultimately improve health outcomes in the world,” van Leth says.

Researchers are always on the lookout for good data sets, but many overlook the data that is collected as part of routine procedures in hospitals and clinics, he added. For most patients, health providers collect data concerning their diagnosis, medications, and treatment. This is where van Leth’s passion and expertise come in.

Interdisciplinary mindset inspired career at AIGHD

As an interdisciplinary researcher, his research and projects have expanded outside the scope of his own field like Tuberculosis (TB) and antimicrobial resistance. Recognizing the importance of collaborating with other disciplines and the value it adds to research, he pursued a position at AIGHD.

“The best thing about working at AIGHD is that I am embedded in an interdisciplinary team. I draw on knowledge from many different colleagues who I sit next to every day, and I can receive help from researchers in other fields to advance my own work,” he added, noting his research spans research methodology, infectious diseases, epidemiology and implementation science.

“Working in such a diverse team has also expanded the framework from which I can approach research questions. My work moves away from the biological and medical framework and extends into a social science framework and an implementation science framework. This really fits my objective to focus on novel but context-relevant solutions for global health problems.”

Focusing on implementation for better outcomes

In addition to his biomedical research, van Leth works on understanding how his research findings can better benefit people. For this reason, he dedicates part of his time towards implementation research, which looks at how to best put into effect interventions and recommendations on the ground to maximize outcomes.

One of the most pivotal moments in his career, and what inspired his focus in this area of research was work he undertook with nation-wide TB prevalence surveys in Bangladesh in 2009 and in Tanzania in 2012.

“This work made me aware that study design from behind a desk oftentimes has nothing in common with the political and operational reality on the ground,” he says. “If a study cannot be implemented for one reason or another, the whole research project might fail. The lesson learned is that a study is only as good as the teams in the field implementing that study. Researchers and field workers must work closely together for the project to succeed, and researchers must sometimes rely on the expertise of field workers to get the study implemented. This is why I’ve focused on how to make our interventions work not just in theory, but ensure they work in practice and benefit the people who need them most.”

Much like his experience, his research is diverse. He’s helped care providers develop a system that flags people who might be infected with a resistant TB strand, so that these people can be monitored more closely and treated appropriately.

He’s also focusing on expanding the Lot Quality Assurance Sampling, a random sampling methodology, for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) surveillance which he had tested in Indonesia, to other areas and settings, including veterinary medicine.

“At the end of the day, I am interested in using my experience and the interdisciplinary platform of AIGHD to strengthen the evidence base that inspire interventions that improve Global Health around the world. That is my primary motivation,” van Leth says.

To learn more about his work, visit his profile page.