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Dr Kamran Khan is an infectious disease physician and a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. After completing his training in infectious diseases, preventive medicine and public health, he returned to Toronto just before SARS crippled the city during the 2003 outbreak. Deeply motivated by this event, Kamran has dedicated his career to developing solutions that help the world better prepare for and respond to tomorrow’s infectious disease threats. Based at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St Michael’s Hospital, he is the Founder and CEO of BlueDot, an epidemic intelligence company that helps governments and private enterprises build resilience to the growing number of disruptive outbreaks appearing in the world. BlueDot is a Canadian company located in Toronto, Ontario which was among the first in the world to identify the emerging risk from SARS-CoV-2 in Hubei province and published the world’s first peer-reviewed study accurately predicting its early global spread. His research interests focus on human migration, international travel and the globalisation of emerging infectious diseases.
What are the key leadership messages you want to get out to the BMJ Leader readership?
Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’1 This is a pivotal moment as we enter the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, where we may be inclined to revert back to our reactive ways of confronting infectious disease emergencies. What the world needs more than ever is a proactive and preventive mindset, and that requires tenacity and leadership.
My interest in emerging infectious diseases started with the international SARS-CoV epidemic in 2003, and here we are today in a pandemic caused by SARS-CoV-2. Between the nearly two decades in between, I have learned that humans are reactive creatures, capable of rapidly mobilising vigorous responses to infectious disease emergencies. However, when threats abate, we have a tendency to revert back to business as usual. I recognise the world is exhausted from COVID-19 and we all just want to get out of this pandemic. But while the risks from COVID-19 are gradually diminishing, the risks from emerging diseases are in fact increasing. The current multinational outbreak of monkeypox is a stark reminder of this. So, my key leadership message is to stay focused on preparing for the next set of threats that we will inevitably face.
Tell us a little bit about your leadership role and how it is changing as a result of the pandemic?
I hold three roles, first as a clinician practising infectious diseases at two of the University of Toronto’s academic teaching hospitals. Second, as a scientist and professor studying epidemics of emerging diseases and teaching medical trainees. And third as an entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of BlueDot, which harnesses the power of advanced data analytics and machine learning to help public and private sector organisations build readiness and resilience to global infectious disease threats. At BlueDot, my leadership role has evolved significantly over the course of a pandemic. Until recently, I was overseeing multiple teams including product development, engineering, data analytics, marketing and commercialisation. But the company’s growth has required me to empower members of my team to take on new leadership roles, by giving them broader and more ambitious mandates, with greater autonomy and independence over their work. As a leader I believe it is important to be self-aware, recognising and playing to your strengths while letting others play to theirs. I have also found that leading with empathy and compassion is extremely important in connecting with others and building trust, especially during these challenging times in the world. We do not always appreciate the weight people are carrying in their personal and professional lives and as CEO, one of my mandates has been to create a work culture that is safe, transparent and supportive. And in the process, I am continuously learning from others and growing every day.
What events in your past experience are most informing your leadership in this pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented event in my lifetime, but I have lived and worked through other infectious disease emergencies. To some degree, these life experiences have informed my current leadership style during the pandemic. I still remember doing my clinical fellowship training in New York in 1999 when West Nile virus arrived in North America in Queens, New York. This was my first time encountering a newly emerging disease and all the uncertainty around it. Two years later, shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anthrax was weaponised and sent through the US postal system, reminding us that infectious disease emergencies could arise from deliberate acts. Then, when I moved to Toronto and started my career at the University of Toronto in 2003, the city experienced a 4-month-long epidemic of SARS. In fact, it was that formative experience that inspired me to create BlueDot. Through these and other experiences, I have learned a great deal about public health emergencies and working alongside government agencies and policymakers. And sometimes this has entailed making time-sensitive decisions with imperfect information and significant uncertainty. Through these experiences, I have fostered new relationships and deepened existing ones with clinician providers, academic scientists, public health and private sector leaders, and fellow entrepreneurs.
What are you finding the biggest challenges?
Misinformation is an enormous challenge as citizens are often left to determine what is a trusted source of information and what is not. As a healthcare provider working and interacting with patients, this issue of misinformation is readily apprarent as many people have divergent views from the mainstream medical and scientific community. Another formidable challenge is the longevity of this pandemic. Most of us were not prepared for a crisis that would last this long. We are more than 2 years into this crisis and our collective exhaustion presents real challenges to our physical, mental and emotional well-being. Operating in a state of emergency for 4 months during the SARS epidemic in Toronto felt like a long time, but COVID-19 has been a marathon without a well-demarcated and clearly visible finish line. And for the most vulnerable in society such as the elderly and immunocompromised, SARS-CoV-2 is likely to remain a significant threat for years to come.
Any particular surprises?
Looking back at the beginning of the pandemic, I remember hearing the banging of pots and pans every evening to pay respects to our front-line healthcare workers. We saw this gesture happening all across the world, as people put signs in their windows and donated food and supplies to hospitals. Two years later, what surprises me is that there have been threats to healthcare providers, some of whom have been physically assaulted or intimidated online for their work in service of others. In some instances, hospitals have asked staff not to wear their scrubs or badges when coming to or from work to reduce their personal risks. I never imagined a day where this scenario would occur.
Are you seeing any behaviours from colleagues that encourage or inspire you?
Recently with the Omicron variant, what has been incredibly inspiring is seeing healthcare providers fill in to support others on the frontlines who have become ill with COVID-19. Every day, I see acts of kindness as colleagues support not just one another, but compassionately care for their patients. These have been inspiring moments for me because I get to witness the values and culture of the organisation that I work in play out in the real world.
How are you maintaining kindness and compassion?
By leveraging my personal and professional support structures and echoing the empathy of my peers, I strive to bring kindness and compassion to those around me. And that begins with being more compassionate to myself. Simple things like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, spending time with my children and family, and engaging in activities unrelated to work have helped energise me. One example that has provided me with a lot of joy is becoming a ‘plant parent’. I now have an Olive tree and an African milk tree that I nurture, which has helped me feel connected to other living things.
Are there any ideas or readings that you find helpful, for inspiration and support, which you would recommend to others?
This may a bit specific, but I would highly recommend Marcus Aurelius’ book Meditations2 and Ryan Holiday’s podcast, the Daily Stoic.3 I know stoicism carries the connotation of enduring pain and hardship without complaining, but these works are more about ancient wisdom for everyday life. Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium (modern-day Cyprus) in Athens, but similar to others like Socrates, these philosophers spent a considerable amount of time thinking and reflecting about what truly matters in life and how to value your time. I have found just a short read or listen helps ground me in the present and has been inspirational in my leadership journey. Stoicism allows me to create meaningful goals and strive for continued personal development.
What are you looking for from your leaders?
I am looking for leaders who: (1) embody and live the organisation’s values in their day-to-day work, (2) have bold visions that they can clearly communicate and work with others to achieve, and (3) empower and lift others up to create an inclusive, highly effective and resilient organisational culture that is grounded in transparency and trust. As Peter Drucker once said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’
Patient consent for publication
Author note Interview date: 10 April 2022.
Contributors SG drafted the manuscript based on the interview. KK edited the manuscript. Both authors approved the final manuscript.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.