Phil Southerland, co-founder of the US-based Professional Continental Team Type 1-Sanofi, has been appointed director of healthcare policy, planning and patient advocacy at the World Health Organization in light of his long-term work with diabetic athletes in the sport of cycling.
The 29-year-old, who was born with type 1 diabetes, spoke with BikeRadar about what it takes to shift international health policy and educate the world about diabetes. “I think what I bring to the World Health Organization is a passion for life,” Southerland said.
“My dream is to wake up in a world free of diabetes complications, and for this to happen, we need major changes in government policy around the world. We've been working in Rwanda for the past year and I know what’s possible when kids with diabetes, who before meeting our Team Type 1 athletes and seeing what our guys have achieved, had no hope in their lives.”
Southerland started his career in the sport of cycling on an eight-man, all-diabetic team at the Race Across America (RAAM) in 2006. They placed second by three minutes to the winning team. In 2007, the diabetic team returned to win the overall title. Southerland and his teammate Joe Eldridge formed the professional road cycling Team Type 1 with the intention of developing the first team to enter the Tour de France with diabetic athletes by 2012.
The main message, however, was to inspire diabetics to follow their athletic endeavors. “Through the example of Team Type 1-Sanofi, I can also provide an empowerment factor,” he said. “Whether I present to a group of kids or a room full of government officials, most of them are shocked when I tell them I was diagnosed 28 years ago or that our Team Type 1 athletes are competing at the highest levels of professional cycling. 'But you look normal’, they always say, and I tell them we are because we have the tools and education we need to control our disease.”
The squad took their first steps overseas as a Professional Continental team and padded their infrastructure with the addition of new president Allen Salikoff, chief marketing officer Alex Kaminsky and chief development officer John Hipp. The growth of the team’s management allowed Southerland to accept his new role with the WHO. “I feel very lucky because of the great team I have in place,” Southerland said. “Vassili Davidenko runs the pro men’s team and he’s done a great job. He's such a professional and is an incredible leader, and it was his vision for the team which has given us such a successful European launch this year.”
Southerland is based at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center, International Diabetes Center and Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He's tasked with supporting the center’s five-year collaboration with China’s Ministry of Health to promote patient self-care through programs sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
He'll support policies to discourage discrimination against children and young adults with type 1 diabetes, and assist the center’s similar efforts in Latin America, the Asia Pacific region and Middle East. “For me personally, and for Team Type 1’s mission to show people around the world that anything is possible with diabetes, it was an extremely important appointment, and one I'll take great pride in representing,” Southerland said. “Having an official World Health Organization title gives me the ability to help influence policy which will save lives and improve them."
“People with diabetes face terrible discrimination,” he said. “In China for example, if you have diabetes, you can’t go to school or get a job, and many people die. Those changes can only be made through major shifts in policy, so when you’re dealing with governments, a title provides immediate credibility. After meetings in Nanjing, a province in Jiangsu, with the Nanjing Ministry of Health and the CDC, it has committed to being the first to reverse this horrid policy, and also to pay for the treatment of people with diabetes. My goal is to scale this to all of China.”
Southerland will travel to Rwanda in November where he will work to improve the supply of insulin, blood glucose meters, test strips, education and empowerment to people with diabetes. His efforts will be bolstered by the appearance of Team Type 1-Sanofi at the nation’s Tour of Rwanda. The team has committed to bring medical supplies for every child with diabetes in that country.