HIV solution: decentralizing treatment & patient empowerment

At the core of successful health programs are powerful community systems. Whether they are strong local governments, community-based organizations, or just informal groups of individuals – these types of community centered systems keep health programs focused on serving people and meeting needs in ways that will be most effective for the community.

In what has been called a model for Africa and US health programs by CDC Dr. Kebba Jobarteh, Mozambique is leading the way in restructuring how HIV treatment and support is delivered. Most countries in southern Africa have very high HIV prevalence rates as well as difficulties in providing treatment to those who need it. While there are many people in need of HIV treatment, there is a critical lack of adequate health infrastructure, clinics, hospitals, and health workers, to deliver the necessary services.

Providing treatment is just the beginning of the battle. Once an individual starts treatment with antiretrovirals (ARVs) they need to continue to adhere to a regular regimen of ARVs. Access to the medications and clinics along with regularly taking ARVs present a two-fold problem in areas where health services have long been weakened by a plethora of misfortunes: apartheid, structural adjustment programs, lack of development, under-investment, etc.

The new model developed by Doctors without Borders (MSF) puts communities at the forefront. By creating “patient groups,” treatment is decentralized to small health clinics in communities. This model spreads the responsibility to communities where there is the greatest need. The patient groups act as both a delivery system for ARV drugs as well as a support network for those with HIV. In many rural areas, people don’t have the time to travel long distances for extended periods of time to get their ARV drugs. The members of a patient group take turns traveling the distance to the health clinic. Likewise, members record whether each member of their group has taken their ARVs regularly and on time, which is then reported to the health clinic.

The model is very similar to that of “community health workers” (CHWs), who are members of the community that share knowledge and provide services when health systems can’t. As a solution to the inadequate health systems seen around the world, the “patient group” model puts those who need health services in control of their own treatment with the backing of a support network from their community. This may be a more effective model than CHWs since those who need treatment are providing the treatment. What better way to understand patient needs than to listen to the patients?

The CHW model has been popularized by organizations such as Partners in Health working in communities in developing countries. The model has now spread to urban areas and “developed” countries around the world. The patient model is yet another example of rural solutions from developing countries setting the bar for gaps in health care treatment in developed countries. A patient-centered/ people-centered approach to health delivery will make health systems more effective and successful around the world.

Featured on the Americans for Informed Democracy Blog, where I’m writing as a Global Health Analyst and reposted by Partners in Health.

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