Liberia is one of the poorest war-torn nations on earth. Today, it recovers from a devastating civil war which destroyed the majority of health facilities and caused a mass exodus of professional health workers. From 1999 until 2003, there was no system in place for health care, education or government.
When the war ended, the Liberia was left with 51 doctors in a country of almost 4 million. The numbers equate to around 10 doctors treating the entire city of San Francisco.
To receive access to health care, rural villagers must navigate narrow dirt paths winding through thick jungle – often impassable – to neighboring communities with life-saving health services. Consequently, diseases that are considered ‘easily treatable’ in the US can be a death sentence.
Raj Panjabi spent part of his childhood growing up in Liberia, experiencing the Civil War first hand. In 1990, he resettled with his family in America and went on to become and doctor and eventually work to change access to healthcare in the very area where he was raised.
Panjabi, MD, MPH, is now an associate physician in the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Panjabi's non-profit, Last Mile Health, trains a local villagers to perform basic medical tasks and arming them with essential medicines can both save lives and create jobs. Ninety percent of the Last Mile Health staff is Liberian.
The mantra of the organization is simple:
Nobody should die because they live too far from a doctor.
Last Mile Health’s village nurses screen for tuberculosis, hydrate those with diarrhea and provide nutritional supplements to newborns.
“The Liberian human capital is an amazing resource. These are real people; they were just happen to be born in a resource-poor area,” said Andy Sechler, MD, associate medical director for Last Mile Health who starts work at a BWH hospitalist next month. “We have a system to identify front line healthcare workers and give them the supplies they need.”
The Last Mile team has had a huge impact Konobo, where 30 health workers have been trained to care for the community. By next summer, the number will grow to cover health care for around 150,000 people. Sechler has personally seen the health care disparity gap begin to close as Last Mile Health works to improve access to care, infrastructure and technology.
“Just last week we were able to provide cell phone service to Konobo where service has been off for about five years,” said Sechler. “Having this technology available opens up huge opportunities in mobile health.”
Though Last Mile Health has made strides, he remains motivated to continue the journey of making health care accessible.
“As a physician I worked in the hospital in the US where children do not die because they are healthy. At the hospital in Liberia I saw children dying left and right because ‘normal’ ailments can be fatal,” said Sechler. “Here we can see why public health exists.”
Read more about Last Mile Health in the Oct. 3 Forbes article:
This Guy May Have Solved the Healthcare Model For 1 Billion People
Watch Panjabi tell his story in the video below from this past June’s Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy: