The 2023 International Health Economics Association (IHEA, formerly stylised as iHEA) Congress was held in Cape Town, South Africa, in collaboration with the African Health Economics and Policy Association (AfHEA). The Mother City of the Rainbow Nation, home of Table Mountain, the African Cape Penguin, and the most biodiverse city in the world. This was an IHEA of many firsts; the first IHEA held in Africa, the first IHEA held in a low or middle income country (LMIC), the first in-person AfHEA event, and my first IHEA too!
The congress was five days in total, with two pre-congress days and three days for the main congress. There was a wide range of pre-congress sessions catering to many sub-disciplines and interests. I attended two morning sessions during the pre-congress weekend, on direct financing for public facilities and health financing capacity strengthening in Africa. The latter session was rich with different viewpoints and a dynamic discourse on how to strengthen, retain, and cultivate talent and health economics research across Africa. This session was moderated by John Ataguba (IHEA board member and executive director of AfHEA) and featured panellists working in academia, government, and the private sector. The key issues highlighted were the need to act now, a brain drain, a lack of gender representation, and a disconnect between graduate programmes and the skills needed in the field. The suggestions made included i) meeting talent before they graduate from university, ii) allowing students to gain relevant experience by working on live government issues, iii) providing more mentoring programmes, iv) governments taking charge of skills development pathways, and v) secondments during degrees.
At the end of the pre-congress weekend, there was an opening plenary session on the congress theme, which was Diversifying Health Economics. Awards were presented to LSHTM PhD candidate Henry Cust, Mario Martínez-Jiménez, and Corneliu Bolbocean.
Day one of the conference started in full swing, featuring a multitude of different sessions too numerous to cite. The last session slot of the day was reserved for some of the IHEA Special Interest Group (SIG) meetings, including the Economics of Obesity SIG, Economics of Children’s Health and Wellbeing SIG, and the Health Preference Research SIG. Here was one of the many times I had to reflect on the opportunity cost of my session choices, I attended the Environmental Sustainability and Health Economics SIG meeting. This SIG meeting was different from the others given that it had not yet been formally established, so this meeting was to establish the level of interest and potential direction for the group.
In the evening, AfHEA hosted a ‘work and chop session’ (workshop). ‘Chop’ is Pidgin English (spoken across West Africa) for eat. The evening was great, with live local entertainment, stellar food, and interesting discussions. Some of the topics of discussion included policy engagement, teaching health economics in Africa, early career mentorship, and strategic initiatives for health economics. Some solutions included launching an African-based journal, more mentorship, and rewriting the African health economics curricula.
Day Two of the conference was a bit of a blur, as I was presenting in the ‘Economic Evaluation of Community-Based Interventions’ session. Following this, I attended the special organised session on equity, diversity, and inclusion: How is IHEA Performing and how can we Improve? Key takeaways for me: 141 countries represented between 1997 and 2023; 74 languages spoken; top 10 countries represented were USA, UK, South Africa, Australia, China, Switzerland, Kenya, Canada, India, and Indonesia. There has been a lot of upward mobility in terms of positions and roles, and IHEA is looking for ways to increase Latin American participation.
In the evening, we had the pleasure of a nice buffet with food from across the African continent, and got to hear the beautiful University of Cape Town Choir who sang renditions of the Lion King and Africa by Toto.
Day 3 featured an important closing plenary session detailing how climate change, environment, and sustainability are moving to the forefront of health economics issues. Martin Hensher (University of Tasmania) cautioned us with a clear quote:
Climate change is going to exert an ever greater impact on all of our work as health economists. What you do, what you want to do, and what you can no longer do is going to be impacted by climate change.
All in all, the 15th IHEA Congress was a great opportunity to discuss, refine, examine, and collaborate with my peers in the field. An added perk of the congress taking place in Cape Town was the warmth of the Capetonians, the great food, and finally the views of Table Mountain, which could be seen from pretty much any side of Cape Town.