In 2010, Ghana Medical Help (GMH) founder Kelly Hadfield went to Ghana for the first time. She was volunteering in a hospital in the rural north, which, like most hospitals in the area, lacked even the most basic medical supplies and supported more than 88,000 people with a single physician.
While she was there, she befriended a young boy who was suffering from a snake bite. What the hospital staff couldn’t have known was that, despite the appearance of recovery, the boy had internal bleeding. Without even the basic medical equipment required to monitor his vital signs, the staff had no idea what was happening when the boy suddenly became critically ill. As a result, he died. Ghana Medical Help exists today because one devastated, stubborn 21-year-old woman, passionate about health equity, resolved to do whatever she could to change that outcome for future patients.
What began as Hadfield’s personal mission to provide those basic medical supplies to a single hospital has developed over the past six years into a comprehensive charitable organization, driving a movement to improve health outcomes for millions of people around the world. Part of the success GMH has experienced is owed to Hadfield’s research background. A master’s in science graduate, she recognized the importance of using a research-based approach to find solutions that would fulfil genuine needs in the community and evolve as those needs change.
As a result, the organization conducts quarterly assessments to identify and target the most urgent medical equipment needs and review GMH’s impact at each of its 14 partner hospitals, which together serve more than two million people. Since GMH’s intervention began, partner hospitals report decreased maternal mortality, decreased infant mortality, increased patient attendance, decreased patient re-attendance, increased staff morale and other key indicators of an improved capacity to deliver effective health care.
The medical equipment donation program is an incredibly important part of operations today, but GMH has become much more. To monitor and maintain the equipment donations, GMH recruited volunteers — called “GMH ambassadors” — from each hospital. Initially intended to train the GMH ambassadors on proper use, monitoring and repair of donated equipment, the program expanded when they requested more medical training. The organization now conducts quarterly educational workshops for the GMH ambassadors, on topics such as neonatal resuscitation, trauma care and respiratory distress. The workshops are conducted using a train-the-trainers model, so the ambassadors return to their respective hospitals and provide the training to fellow staff members and those in remote health centres. The program has also created a novel network among the hospitals, promoting collaboration and enabling them to share knowledge and resources with one another.
Beyond supporting the hospitals, the organization turned its sights on surrounding communities. These communities experience some of the country’s highest levels of poverty; families survive on the equivalent of less than $45 per year. When people lack a sufficient income to provide their families with food or shelter, it’s easy to see how employing good health practices can cease to be a priority. To address this, GMH launched the Sheep Health and Economic Empowerment Project (SHEEP). Beneficiary families receive one pregnant sheep and keep the first three offspring, which they can sell at a very high price. The fourth ewe born is returned to GMH and donated to a new beneficiary family. In this way, the program quickly becomes self-sustaining and provides rural families with a stable source of income. To qualify, families agree to attend bi-monthly workshops that are one part asset-management training and one part public-health education, covering topics such as family planning, malaria prevention and alcoholism.
Equip, educate, empower. These initiatives reflect GMH’s approach to changing the future of global health. We aim to supply health care professionals and communities with the tools and resources they need to function; provide education to improve the quality of health provision and practices; and engage the community to establish local ownership over the programs, ultimately eliminating the need for external intervention. Together, these actions can create the sustainable change 21-year-old Hadfield was seeking.
Olivia Knight is Ghana Medical Help’s Canadian director of operations.