Five years ago, I was in Nigeria with a team of Physicians for Peace medical trainers. We were teaching a group of 50 health practitioners the basic skills in neonatal resuscitation – an essential skill as more than one million babies die each year when they don’t breathe on their own immediately following delivery. At the end of our first training day, a pediatrician with 20 years of experience walked up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “If I had known what you taught me today, my own baby would still be alive.”
This was a powerful and enlightening moment in my career as the president and CEO of Physicians for Peace. This woman wasn’t a bad mother or an incompetent doctor. She was a victim of a public health issue in developing countries: the issue of ongoing medical training – or often a lack thereof.
The lack of access to basic healthcare provided by a well-trained workforce affects millions across the world. It kills mothers and leaves their children with an ever-shrinking chance of survival. It leaves many disabled, unable to work or lead normal lives; and it’s the same issue the Nigerian mother and doctor struggled with. The cruel reality is however, that it’s largely preventable.
For many in the developed world, it’s difficult to fathom the pain of lying awake at night struggling to cope with the fact that our unborn child may not survive, or if we will live to raise that child. When we are injured, we don’t often fear we will never run or walk again. If we are burned, we don’t despair at the thought that we’ll be disfigured for the rest of our lives. These are uncommon worries in developed countries as we know where to receive the quality treatment we need.
Yet sadly, millions of people around the world are not as fortunate and struggle with these concerns on a daily basis.
Twenty-five years ago when Dr. Charles Horton Sr. founded Physicians for Peace, he set out to find a solution to this global healthcare gap. An early innovator in the field of medical education in the developing world, he recognized “if you heal someone, you heal one person. But if you teach someone to heal, you help many!” His vision was to disrupt the paradigm of quick–fix medicine – well-meaning practitioners visiting developing countries to meet the immediate clinical needs – with a model that trains, supports and empowers the local healthcare workforce.
And Dr. Horton’s idea continues to this day. Around the world Physicians for Peace is helping to fill critical training gaps in areas such as burn care – where someone suffers a burn injury every five seconds in the developing world and forty percent of these victims are kids. By partnering with local hospitals and clinics, Physicians for Peace empowers local healthcare teams with skills to provide life changing rehabilitation and psycho-social support to burn victims. These trained professionals have then gone on to share this knowledge with their peers and have continued to grow the network of trainers beyond their national borders. And it doesn’t stop there.
Consider the amputee who doesn’t have access to a trained prosthetic or orthotic technician; the student who can’t see the chalkboard because she unknowingly needs glasses; or mothers like the woman I met in Nigeria who lost her child because she didn’t have access to quality maternal and infant care. Each of these are healthcare challenges that can be prevented with the ability to properly diagnose and treat.
Physicians for Peace is working in all of these high impact areas of health, providing access to quality healthcare and support that would otherwise be difficult to come by.
Regardless of the country, religion, ethnicity or geopolitics, our goals are the same: self-sufficiency and better health. While there is certainly a place for practitioners to visit a country and perform procedures, this approach falls short of a lasting solution. We have to focus on building the capacity of the local system and ensure the impact of our work propagates. We must create an environment where the skills our medical educators share are honed and passed along to others in the community. That is where we define the impact, and the opportunity to prevent so many unnecessary tragedies that take place every day.
At a time when the global community is looking ahead to the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, and development funding is waning, we must remember that for each dollar spent in the developing world, the value can multiply significantly in providing solutions that last; solutions that provide communities with the tools to continue influencing change long after an NGO leaves. And that is what Physicians for Peace is doing.
This article was first published by Forbes and is reproduced with the permission of Brigadier General Ron Sconyers (USAF, Ret.), President and Chief Executive Officer of Physicians for Peace, who is pictured above on a health mission to Nigeria in 2008. Image courtesy of The Earth Institute Blog.