Hi, I’m Rita - a medical doctor, public health academic, and activist for collective health
Dr Rita Issa (MBBS, MPH, DTM&H, MRCGP, FRSA) is a family medicine physician, PhD fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research (UEA), visiting fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights (Harvard School of Public Health), and honorary fellow at UCL/ Lancet Migration.
Her PhD research seeks to understand loss due to climate change through the concept of Solastalgia; an exploration of mental health and loss rooted in place, and how a just response to the health impacts of climate change could be enacted through systemic processes - such as legal frameworks or the UN Loss and Damage mechanism. More broadly, her academic work is in intersections of climate change, migration, justice and health. She is co-editor of BMA book of the year 2022 – the ‘Handbook of Refugee Health’ (Taylor Francis), the upcoming text ‘Resistance, activism and social movements in health and healthcare’ (Oxford University Press), and is a commissioner for the BMJs 'Future of the NHS' commission where she focuses on health system sustainability and equity.
Rita has worked as a humanitarian medic for MSF, Greenpeace, Primary Care International and WHO, and has (co)founded a number of advocacy and activist organisations campaigning on climate change, migrant rights, and health justice and access. Her work has appeared in the Independent, the BBC, Sky, Al Jazeera, Novara Media, and others. Her contributions to the fields of climate change and health were recognised by London Mayor as “Public Sector Changemaker of the Year 2022”.
A bit more detail about me
I currently divide my time in 4(+) ways:
NHS GP (family medicine physician) working in a highly diverse community in East London, at a holistic practice that centres the social determinants of health in our understanding of health
"Critical Decade for the Climate Leverhulme PhD Fellow" at the University of East Anglia - but currently in Boston at the Harvard School of Public Health, using participatory community-led approaches to explore mental health and transformation in communities on the frontlines of Climate and Environmental breakdown. I continue to hold an honorary Research Fellowship in Climate Change, Migration and Health at Lancet Migration and the UCL Institute for Global Health.
Innovating on Planetary Health futures
Activism, community organising, and supporting communities to shift power
I completed my family medicine (GP) training at the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, the birthplace of social prescribing and one of the first in the UK to take a community-led approach to health care, rooted within the social determinants of health. I continue to work there as a GP when I'm in London; while I cover all aspects of primary care, I have a particular interest in mental health.
Humanitarian & global health
In the Spring of 2021, I spent 3-months as the onboard medic for the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in the Indian Ocean, reporting on the importance of the oceans for human and planetary health as a columnist for the Independent. As a humanitarian medic, I've worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in the Syrian refugee response, and conceptualised and developed the first home-based chronic disease programme in a refugee camp, still ongoing 5+ years on, and with other organisations including Primary Care International. As a consultant at WHO, I helped develop the first round of climate and health country profiles at COP21 to enable negotiators to use the public health impacts of climate change as a negotiation tool.
*of note, I use the term activist as a reclamation and a normalisation - at these times, we sh(c)ould all be activists
I have been an activist for over a decade and believe that communities hold the answers to our most pressing challenges; as such, my work is in building community power and amplifying grassroots stories and solutions. Groups I’ve (co-)founded or worked with include Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, Build Back Better, Keep Our NHS Public, Docs Not Cops, UK Uncut, Health Professionals for Global Health, NHS Direct Action, and Medact. Campaigns I’ve contributed to span air pollution, climate change, access to healthcare for migrants, covid-19 communication, tackling vaccine misinformation, the US-UK trade negotiations, and the Green New Deal. My speech at the Enough is Enough rally in October 2022, and subsequent interview, went viral.
Media and knowledge dissemination
I use the media as a tool to flatten knowledge hierarchies and translate complex or inaccessible scientific information into clear, concise messaging for the public. I've appeared on BBC news, BBC R4 'Moral Maze', ITV, Sky News, Al Jazeera and Novara Media, among others, and write when there’s no other outlet for my frustrations. I have given various talks and keynote speeches inc. at the Oxford Blavatnik School of Government, the UK govt's National Climate Change Conference, the Prince Mahidol Award Conference, UNGA and COP side events, MED Fest, Glastonbury's Leftfield Stage, and more.
Innovations and dreamings
I'm the initiator of Planet.Health, an exploratory incubator which applies tools - ranging web3, AI and AR/VR, to indigenous knowledge systems - to support re-imagining planetary health futures. I am a co-founder of Unexia, a web3 platform (pre-launch) that utilises the blockchain to improve governance and financing for the SDGs. Aligned, I sit on the advisory board to the UK government All Party Parliamentary Group on web3 and the metaverse.
On the side, I'm a trained yoga teacher with an interest in whole food nutrition, jungian psychotherapy, trauma, consciousness and 'the mystery'. I believe science doesn't yet have all the answers for what makes us ill, and how we can live better.
I'm a session musician (violin, guitar and voice among others), perform and record on the semi-regular, and run jam sessions. Bands I've played and recorded with include The Trials of Cato, and United Freedom Collective, both in their early days.
For some, I might appear somewhat scattered, but from where I'm standing it doesn't feel that way. I realised early in my career that those who I admired most carved their own paths and that often innovation comes from cross-pollination, collaboration, and transdisciplinarity. My nature is to be a "deep generalist" and I feel my role in ecosystems is to be a bridge - between people, ideas and approaches. Without a well trodden path to follow, I work on areas and themes that interest me and align with values of justice/ fairness, agency, and impact. Clearly what we've tried so far hasn't worked: we haven't won on health, migrant rights, and definitely not on the climate. So, I'm happy to continue cross-pollinating until we land on something that does.