Doc: Ebola outbreak offers lessons on rural healthcare

Doctor and nurses wheeling patient in gurney through hospital corridor
Photo credit: Getty/Sam Edwards
Raj Panjabi
Raj Panjabi

Lessons learned from a public health crisis like the Ebola outbreak in 2014 can offer solutions to improve rural health globally, according to an award-winning doctor who treated patients in Liberia.

In an interview with Quartz, Raj Panjabi, M.D., founder of Last Mile Health and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said a key response to deal with the problems in rural health is to examine and invest in blind spots where rural patients are unable to receive needed care. For example, the Ebola outbreak began in more remote villages in Guinea before spreading to other countries and regions, he said, so community health workers that can reach those more remote areas are important in promoting public health.

“In remote parts of Liberia, we’ve had cases where a disease has claimed one person, and then because the area is so cutoff—no roads, electricity, or even cellphones—the disease spread and killed all the people who attended her funeral,” said Panjabi, who won the $1 million TED Prize for his efforts.

Another key lesson, according to Panjabi, is that emergency response teams must adapt and prepare to change approach on the fly, especially if a large-scale outbreak occurs. Community health workers, too, must be trained to recognize when their skills are applicable and when they should call in someone with more expertise.

Examining the Ebola outbreak offers other lessons for health professionals on issues like infection control and emergency preparedness. For instance, health facilities should have standard protocols to prepare for potential disease outbreaks that include strategies for infection control and ways to reduce infection risk for patients. Many organizations have preparedness plans in place to handle the worst, but docs aren’t exactly sold on their effectiveness or how prepared the facilities they work for are for a worst-case scenario.