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Profile: Dr Rajaie Batniji

Profile: Dr Rajaie Batniji

Dr Rajaie Batniji (2007, DPhil International Relations)

Dr Rajaie Batniji came to Univ in the second year of his MPhil as a Junior Dean and stayed for his DPhil in IR. He is Collective Health’s Co-Founder and Chief Health Officer. Collective Health brings together Dr Batniji’s academic and professional careers as both a physician and as a political economist, and his aspiration to create a better and more efficient health insurance experience. He is on Twitter @RBatniji.

How did you come to study a DPhil in International Relations at Univ?
The short answer is: a combination of luck and persistence. I was a restless medical student in the United States and applied for a Marshall Scholarship to pursue my interests in global public health. I initially matriculated at St John’s College for the MPhil in IR. I was lucky to be selected as Junior Dean at Univ, and migrated to the College for my second year at Oxford.

I was fortunate to work closely with Professor Ngaire Woods, whom I spent the first year at Oxford trying to convince to become my DPhil supervisor. She agreed, and I started working with Ngaire in the creation of what became a research initiative on global health governance.

How did your DPhil connect to your previous diverse studies?
I was able to integrate my interests in health and history by studying international relations. My doctoral work at Univ provided me with the theoretical and technical skills I needed to examine what factors motivated countries to cooperate on health issues since 1918. The surprising observation was that we failed to cooperate on highly contagious infectious diseases and saw cooperation on diseases that posed little international threat. Rationalist arguments would fail to explain this.

So, my thesis work was broadly historical, drew on my clinical knowledge, but – most importantly – allowed me to explain the observations that I found surprising by applying theories from politics and international relations to understand the influence of international institutions and knowledge communities. It becomes possible to understand, explain, and perhaps even predict what we could have dismissed as irrational. I found myself bringing together all the different fields I had studied in a way that surprised me.

Profile: Dr Rajaie BatnijiHow do you think you changed from the first moment you stepped through Univ’s doors to your graduation?
My time at Univ was formative. It was there that I reconciled my diverse interests and learned how to bring them together. I learned to write and to frame an argument. I learned how to engage peers and faculty working in fields I know almost nothing about. I left Univ less certain and more curious. Perhaps most importantly, I formed lifelong friends during my time at Univ that remain impactful today.

Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are willing to share here? How did you cope with the challenge in question?
Moving directly from the unstructured world of being a DPhil student immediately into the regimented world of being a medical resident in the United States was a shock to me. The adjustment was hard. I went from total liberty to work on the questions that interested me, at the hours I found convenient, and with the people I wanted to work with, to effectively giving up all control of how I spent my time while spending more than 100 hours a week on clinical service.

The transition was difficult, emotionally, socially, and intellectually. I am not sure I would have made it through my residency training had I not convinced my clinical training program at Stanford to allow me to pursue medical training on a half-time basis after my first year. I was fortunate that Stanford was flexible and allowed me to spend half my time doing post-doctoral work at the University’s institute for international studies.

Profile: Dr Rajaie Batniji

Collective Health building

Why did you start Collective Health?
As a physician, I routinely experience how our system of healthcare payments in the US is misaligned with care outcomes, and totally confusing to me and my patients. I was motivated to effect structural change by creating a new technology infrastructure for US healthcare that would intelligently connect people to the right care and enable efficient payment and data exchange.

I did not expect to take the entrepreneurial path. But, I believe I have learned more about the US healthcare system than I could have doing anything else. And, it has been an incredible journey over the past few years. Challenging massive incumbents has required like-minded partners, a team of hundreds across the US, and hundreds of millions of dollars in investor financing. It still feels like we are just getting started.

Do you have any reflections about the current COVID-19 situation you would like to share?
The urgency for international cooperation on control of a disease has never been greater. I’m motivated by some of the progress we are seeing in scientific collaboration, data sharing and commitments on vaccine distribution. But, this is clouded by witnessing how some of the world’s beacons of science, including the United States, have been among the worst in the world at controlling this pandemic.

We have manufactured debates about well-proven interventions. We have utterly failed to take national action. We have deferred to the private sector and local governments tasks they are not suited to handle alone. Above all, it seems we are plagued by our optimism: our hope that a vaccine will solve this, our hope in shaky theories, our hope that technology, or another group of people, will solve this. This hope keeps us from implementing what has already been proven to work for controlling this pandemic and past pandemics. This is a reminder to me of the importance of good government, supported by strong and independent scientific institutions in our response to major challenges. Anyone observing America should not take the resilience of these institutions for granted.

Profile: Dr Rajaie Batniji

Dr Batniji with Dr Hala Borno, his wife, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine, and their child

Do you have any advice for postgraduate students?
Nurture relationships with the people around you at Univ as diligently as you nurture your ideas and your studies.

Explore the interests outside of your immediate subject of study. There will be few opportunities as rich for doing so as your time at Univ.

No matter what your subject is, focus on learning to write and communicate with non-expert audiences about it.

Describe Univ in three words.
Curious, Genuine, Nonconformist

Published: 12 October 2020

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