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Boston-based Partners In Health got its start in 1987, when Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl helped set up a one-room clinic in Cange, Haiti.
Over the past quarter-century, the nonprofit has grown to serve almost 2.5 million people in countries such as Rwanda, Peru and Haiti.
As Partners In Health marks its 25th anniversary, Dahl and Farmer – two of the original five founders – talked to Here & Now about the organization, and how their experiences have informed their view of the U.S. health care system.
They believe chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes would be treated better – and more cheaply – by a community health worker at the patient’s home, than at a clinic.
Farmer on the sustainability of Partners In Health
“We are confident that this is sustainable. The gamble that we made more than a dozen years ago was to try and expand our work across Haiti in the public sector with the public health branch of the Haitian government. So, we did that because we saw that those institutions – hospitals and clinics – were really falling apart as we were growing a nicer, more robust medical center and we knew that was wrong.”
Dahl on the importance of working with public health ministries
“That was a listen we learned fairly early on when we saw that the first private clinic we built – it’s really the only clinic – we’ve now rebuilt over 60 facilities across all of the countries in which we work. And all of them, except for that very first clinic are built on public land. They belong to the ministries of health of the governments. It’s easy to see when a whole glut of people come to the one clinic and then you realize, “Gee, we’ll be building a parallel health system here if we don’t start working with the government. How can we make sure that this is sustainable?” Well, we’ve got to work with the governments. In the end, an NGO should not be the institution that’s really creating rights for the population.”
Dahl on the cholera outbreak in Haiti
“We were not able to stop cholera from exploding like a bomb right in that area. Now, we were able to save the lives of the people we cared for. And we cared for, probably now over 100,000 people just in these sites where we were. Another thing that we did is to say, look. It’s going to be a long-term effort to finally turn our attention – not just Partners in Health, but Haiti’s public authorities, other NGOs – turn our attention to water security; to building… You know, here we are sitting in Boston, in the studio, we’re drinking water, tap water, we know we’re not going to get cholera. To do this, you actually have to invest very heavily in public sanitation and water. So, that’s a ten year process. But we thought, what can we do short-term to protect people? You can give them chlorine tablets, which we did. You can try a new vaccine, new but already tested which we also did. We can introduce new technologies for water purification at the household level, at the village level, etc. So we’re do all those things with Partners.”