In 2016, physician and CEO of nonprofit Last Mile Health Dr. Raj Panjabi turned his wish for universal health care into a million-dollar idea — literally.
Panjabi wanted to create an online platform that leveraged digital tools and technology to train a global network of community health workers and systems leaders. And so, Last Mile Health’s Community Health Academy was born.
Panjabi was awarded the 2017 TED Prize — a $1 million grant — for his idea and to help him make the academy he envisioned a reality.
After two years of strategic development, the Community Health Academy launched its first course on May 9, with Magnus Conteh as executive director of the program. The free six-week course, titled “Strengthening Community Health Worker Programs to Deliver Primary Health Care,” aims to teach health systems leaders, who are responsible for designing and implementing community health programs, around the world how to successfully create and develop these programs on a national scale.
Panjabi and Conteh’s dedication to this work stems from their personal experience with health systems severely lacking in resources, workers, and properly trained leaders.
For Panjabi, it was returning to his native Liberia, after fleeing at age nine due to the civil war, to find that there were only 50 doctors to treat 4 million people. For Conteh, who spent his early life in Sierra Leone, it was witnessing, firsthand, the effects of underdeveloped health systems.
“Rural communities that are disadvantaged do not always have access to health care, and when they do, that care is not as good as it should be,” Conteh told Global Citizen. “I saw this as something I could contribute to, not just as my job, but as a personal goal of mine to improve healthcare that is delivered at the frontlines.”
As the executive director of the Community Health Academy, he has relished the opportunity to blend his professional specialities in education, advocacy, health care, and digital technology to help tackle that problem — starting with training leaders who have the power to transform health systems.
The demand for proper training on effectively scaling such programs was realized at the very early stages of developing the academy, Conteh said.
“It was identified following a number of consultations and reviews of what is happening globally, in terms of the health workforce shortage, that there was a need for strengthening the capacity not only of community health workers themselves and their supervisors in the field, but also the health systems leaders at the national level,” he said.
According to a study published in Human Resources for Health, it is projected that 80 million health workers will be in needed globally by 2030, but there will likely be only around 65 millions workers in the health workforce. The predicted shortage of 15 million health workers means that millions will have difficulty accessing quality medical care.
Conteh believes the new course, led by Panjabi, could help address the shortage.
The online training is intended to target current and future health systems leaders, including NGO and UN agency directors and supervisors, government officials and staff working in service of ministries of health, technical advisors, and students studying or interested in public health.
The curriculum covers how to effectively design and implement community health programs as part of primary systems of care at a national level and manage common obstacles. It also touches on how to meaningfully engage in advocacy and collaborate with local governments to provide large populations with quality health care.
The lessons draw on case studies of countries with developed community health systems and include contributions from health workers and systems leaders from around the world.
“Some countries like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Liberia, and Brazil are more experienced in doing this because they have been doing it for a long time. That notwithstanding, there are still gaps in the way they are implementing their programs,” Conteh said.
“There is a lack of clear policies and strategies for implementation of these type of programs, which means then that the programs are not successful, not properly coordinated, not properly resourced,” he added.
Enrollment for the Community Health Academy’s new course ends on December 31, but a second version of the course is soon to follow.
With years of professional experience in community health, Conteh and Panjabi understand the power of education, advocacy, and action in creating change and are sharing their expertise with participants from over 135 countries who are currently enrolled in the course.
Conteh encourages young people passionate about universal health care and community health work to get involved by volunteering to help support existing programs, engaging in relevant discussions and conferences, advocating for quality health care, or pursuing a career in the health field. In doing so, both Conteh and Panjabi believe the future of health care can be improved.
“For all of human history, illness has been universal and access to care has not,” Panjabi said in his 2017 TED talk. “But as a wise man once told me: no condition is permanent. It’s time.”