Promoting public-private partnership in health
Suraphel Mathewos Alemu is a young medical doctor based in the capital. He is also the co-founder of a new organization that is intent on promoting public health within Ethiopia. Here, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on his own biography, on his activism and gives wisdom and advice to those who may want to emulate his journey. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are a noted medical doctor with an array of interest in activism and voluntarism. Tell me about yourself?
Suraphel Mathewos Alemu: I’m a medical doctor working to promote health through community engagement. Throughout my experience, in medical school at Black Lion specialized hospital and afterwards as a medical director for a primary hospital in rural Ethiopia, I’ve learned about the power of proper engagement with the community in drawing local resources for local problems.
Going back to my youth and ambition, I was motivated to get into the medical field for a couple of reasons, one was that I was a high achiever in High school and the field of medicine attracted students like me. The other, and perhaps more pertinent, was that I liked the personal interface afforded in solving problems people had in real time. I remember all the moments in the wards and clinics where i felt connected with the patients, nurses, senior physicians and visitors, it was as if we were all going through the same feelings of suffering in pain and delight in partaking the triumph of beating an illness. The stories of impossible nights on duties and creative innovations in rural hospitals are the life of many young doctors. In the right setting, the Hospital is a place for humanity at its finest.
You are one of the founders of Doctors in Action. Tell me about that?
That is true. As you know, Doctors in Action (DiA) is a social enterprise that works to create a platform for context based, community driven solutions in health. Since its founding in September 2019, DiA has been involved in health promotion, particularly in non-communicable diseases like mental illness and breast cancer. Our approach to making health accessible especially in stigmatized conditions relies on community leaders and individuals with either direct experience of the diseases or are placed to communicate it with the greatest reach and effect. It’s exciting work when you have the chance to communicate health with various leaders in the community from all backgrounds.
Currently, we are leading an effort towards the COVID-19 response in partnership with local businesses for workplace based health promotion, production of protective equipment and communicating facts about the pandemic on various mainstream and social media platforms.
What is its long-term vision?
In the long-term, DiA aims to institutionalize health seeking behavior beyond healthcare facilities. The idea of health as a commodity only accessible through the supply chain of the health system does not suffice in an increasingly decompensated system where the burden of Non-communicable and infectious diseases is compounded. Yet, it takes sustained effort and understanding of social determinants (culture, economic factors, education) to integrate healthy behavior in the workplace and at home, which is why the role of community engagement particularly with civil societies and privately owned organizations is important.
We have frequently held focus group discussions with journalists, charity workers, artists and other members of the community to navigate ways in which healthy behavior can be adopted in the workplace through the adoption of standard of procedures, portals of communications with health care professionals and activities dedicated for health at work.
What is your observation of the COVID-19 pandemic that has now become our reality in Ethiopia?
The COVID-19 pandemic is still unfolding, and as a global community, we have seen unprecedented interventions in the response and its second order effects in many societies, the consequences of which will be felt for years to come. Healthcare is a basic public service that undergirds the structure of social justice, human right and governance, and I think the lesson is apparent in how this pandemic has put at risk the underprivileged, the marginalized and the disenfranchised, especially in countries where access to healthcare depends on socioeconomic background.
Ethiopia has put in place all public health measures and related interventions to mitigate the spread and effect of this pandemic. I have particularly been impressed by the real time communication and transparency with which the government is handling the crisis. Any real time pandemic response, by the very nature of pandemics, is prone to weak links and oversights. However, the rapid strides made towards measurable changes and assimilation of competent, motivated individuals in the leadership of our health system is making its effects palpable.
I’m hopeful this pandemic will show the possibilities in intersectional collaboration in government, and foster public private partnerships in health. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank front line health professionals for their courage and dedication as well as all workers who have made their job essential in the battle against the pandemic, including media organizations utilizing their platforms for the communication of correct information by health professionals.
There are many people who may want to emulate your journey – in medicine, activism and others. What advice do you have for them?
My advice would be a word of caution, that the opportunity cost for accepting circumstances as facts of life is greater than the costs of striving to change them. I am more optimistic now than when I embarked on this work that our community has all the resources it needs to align a strategic effort towards equity and sustainable social change. However, it has been difficult so far to count on replicable models or patterns of behavior especially in the private business sector to make informed assumptions or long-term plans.
For individuals who aim to create their own path, I suggest they seek fellow travelers from all sectors with whom they can share resources, energy and information and hopefully create a culture of cooperation and trust along the way. All Ethiopians are burdened with the responsibility, and privilege of fighting for a better country as citizens, no matter their professional backgrounds or personal misgivings.