Faculty Spotlight: M. James Eliades, MD, MPH

Jamie Eliades, MD, MPH is an emergency medicine physician and an assistant professor of clinical Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, where he teaches Malaria Program Planning and Planning Child Survival Programs. Dr. Eliades has led epidemiologic studies throughout Africa and Asia and currently serves as technical director for PATH’s MalariaCare project, a five-year project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Prior to joining Columbia University, he worked as a medical epidemiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Eliades holds a bachelor of science degree from the University of Michigan, a medical degree from Wayne State University, and a master’s of public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

What are your roles and responsibilities at Mailman and beyond?

I teach, practice medicine, and support the evidence-based implementation of global health programs. I divide my time between my global work for PATH, my teaching and advising at Columbia, and practicing medicine. I spend about 25 percent of the year in Africa.

What is your role with the PATH malaria project and what is this initiative trying to accomplish?

I am the technical director of MalariaCare at PATH, a five-year USAID-funded malaria project which is being implemented under the President’s Malaria Initiative. The focus is on improving the diagnosis and treatment of malaria at both facility and community levels and on building the quality of both laboratory and clinical services. We’re striving to accomplish these goals through the development of data-driven quality assurance systems that would have some sustainability after the life of the project.

How significant is malaria as a global public health problem today?

Malaria is still a huge problem. We have made massive progressive and the numbers [of people who die from this disease] has dropped dramatically over the last ten years. [Much of this success can be attributed to the significant] funding that has gone into bed-nets, which in combination with better diagnosis, proper treatment, and some preventive medicine for pregnant women, has dropped transmission dramatically. But malaria still killed an estimated 584,000 people in 2014—mostly children under five—and mostly in Africa.

What courses do you teach?

I teach two courses, a child survival course and a malaria course. Both are very focused on program planning and the practical concerns that you would face working in the field for an NGO to address these issues. For example, the child survival course provides an overview of the progress that has been made in recent child survival programs and the main causes today of mortality for infants and children under five. But the real focus is on how to best deliver known interventions and the barriers to implementing effective programs. We explore preventive and curative service delivery mechanisms in depth, focusing on the community and primary health clinic level, and we examine the skills that are needed to plan and manage programs in challenging real world contexts.

So these are my regular gigs. I also participate in other people’s classes. I am part of the PHHA [Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance] course, a second-year course which covers advanced topics in public health and I contribute to [PopFam Professor] Rachel Moresky’s class in communicable diseases in complex emergencies.  

I understand that you work to bring your own experiences in the field to these classes and to bring outside speakers who can do the same?

I do both. When I organized a class last year that was focusing on Community Case Management of Childhood Illnesses [a strategy to deliver lifesaving interventions for the most common childhood illnesses in low-resource settings], I invited representatives from Save the Children, UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee to join us. They spoke frankly about their efforts to employ this strategy, including the successes and failures and the challenges they faced, and it was a very stimulating three-hour discussion.

I noticed you graduated from college with a major in history. When did you become interested in medicine?

I became interested in medicine at about seven years old. Nobody in my family is a doctor but my mother takes credit because when I was two years old she starting hanging a stethoscope around my neck! I think [this interest] probably had more to do with the fact that I grew up in a community, and this may sound silly, where the most respected people were physicians. As for studying history, when I got to University and all of these pre-med people were taking biology as a major, I thought, well this is stupid, this is the only opportunity that we have to do something like this. I still got a bachelor of science and did all the science requirements, but I did so while also pursuing one of my interests outside of the health field.

How did you become interested in emergency medicine?

I discovered emergency medicine when I started doing rotations in medical school. I thought I wanted to go into surgery, and vascular surgery in particular, but I discovered that I didn’t like standing in an operating room for five to six hours at a time. I did like all of the diversity of people and conditions that came through the door in the ER.

What led you to pursue public health?

My whole family is Greek and when I was 14 my brother and I spent six weeks at a summer camp there. I came home from that trip and I had to write some kind of assignment [for school]. I remember writing about how different it all was there and how much less people seemed to have than in the United States. It was an immature and naïve view of the world….but I decided then that I wanted to help people in other places and that I wanted to work overseas. There were other little influences along the way, too. My idea of working overseas was hugely reinforced by my watching [the television show] MASH. I was a fanatical MASH fan and I just thought what these doctors do is really cool and that is what I want to do.

You have a lot of roles in your work. Is there anything you enjoy most?

It’s actually the teaching part. I still do clinical work which I love, and I work with some very capable people in the countries where I address global health, but teaching is what I tend to be drawn to the most. I try to instill in my students an understanding of both the humanness and the science behind what we do, and to encourage them to go out into the field and get their hands dirty, so to speak. I also focus a great deal on the importance of knowledge exchange and how much we have to learn from our colleagues in the places we work because we often have more to learn from them than they do from us.