Master’s Alumnus Finds Path to FDA through Health Economics and Global Health Policy Training

IGHS master's alumnus Harinder Chahal with Dr. Joseph Guglielmo
Harinder Chahal, PharmD, MSc ’14 with UCSF School of Pharmacy
Dean Joseph Guglielmo at Chahal’s graduation from the IGHS
Master’s program.

Harinder Singh Chahal, PharmD, MSc ’14, said he learned an important lesson when he entered the IGHS Master of Science program: “You have to find your own interests and path forward, but the program and the faculty are willing and ready to help you find that path.”

Chahal came to the master’s program with some clear goals after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Gambia and completing a Doctor of Pharmacy degree at UCSF. “I wanted to learn about converting evidence-to-policy and to get a deeper understanding of the role of health economics in global health policy, which was a completely new field to me,” he said about selecting his master’s capstone research topic. He worked with his mentor, James Kahn, MD, MPH, to develop a cost effectiveness analysis (CEA) of new Hepatitis C drugs.

Chahal’s capstone project led to an opportunity to work with Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) and link his ongoing thesis to a national policy debate on the cost and value of a new, expensive hepatitis C drug. The work was presented at California Technology Assessment Forum and published in JAMA Internal Medicine. “Getting plugged into that work was quite serendipitous,” he noted.

After graduation, he continued to volunteer his time with Dr. Kahn on a UCSF partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as the lead modeler for a CEA of Hepatitis B interventions for populations with a high risk or high prevalence of the disease; this work was recently published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

In addition to learning health economics, Chahal spent his capstone research block at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional office in Washington, DC, working on an initiative to establish a regional drug regulatory authority for multiple Caribbean nations.

Today Chahal uses the combination of skills learned from his capstone project, at WHO and from his clinical background on a daily basis in his job at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as senior public health advisor and researcher in the Office of Public Health Strategy and Analysis (OPHSA), within the Office of the Commissioner. He said the training he received at UCSF affects how he thinks and the type of work he does: “With my clinical background from the PharmD program and a broader way of thinking about public health from the master’s program, I try to look at issues that have not been looked at from the same angle in my office.”

Chahal’s work in OPHSA involves serving as an advisor, designing and executing research studies, assessing evidence and presenting data in an appropriate way to allow for solid decision-making by the agency.

For the past few years, he has served as an advisor to FDA’s component of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, including researching the agency’s contributions to the global HIV fight and communicating their work to the public via peer-reviewed publications in Journal of International AIDS Society and BMJ Global Health. FDA is a lynchpin for PEPFAR because FDA reviews and registers the drugs that PEPFAR uses for treatment and prevention of HIV in resource-constrained countries. Chahal is also coordinating the implementation of an innovative initiative, called the CRP-Lite, between FDA and WHO to share application reviews of PEPFAR drugs to improve global access to HIV medicines.

Another key lesson that Chahal said he learned in the master’s program was, “It’s not enough to have data or evidence; decision makers have to be able to understand it to make good policy.” In this vein, he is leading a project to visually analyze and present large and complicated data sets in an interactive graphical format so that the FDA’s scientific and policy staff can easily understand and use the data.

Chahal also conducts research on various other priority issues at FDA, such as the impact of generic drugs, opioids and transparency initiatives. And, he leads the internship and fellowship program in OPHSA to mentor the next generation of public health practitioners.

Chahal brings a novel perspective to his work at the FDA, thanks to his UCSF training and experience in a master’s program that helped him find his path forward.