Monday, February 25, 2008

Reality Check: Radio Plus Cellphones Beat Low-Cost Laptops

Real-world experience from Malawi suggests cell phones and radio will have a greater impact than Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative. You hear a very similar story from nearby Mozambique, where radio programs are developed and radios are distributed to fight malaria, among other things. I think if you follow these observations to their logical conclusion, it could lead to major improvements in the delivery of health and medical care in the poorest parts of the world.

Here's the missing piece: the idea of accessing the Internet over the radio. This is what's commonly referred to as wireless access in the U.S.

Usually, wireless access to an Internet node occurs over very short distances--say from our desk to your couch or New York Public Library to nearby Bryant Park.

But technically speaking, as I understand it, there's nothing that would prevent anyone from transmitting a wireless (or radio) signal over much longer distances to access the Internet. The sticking point in the U.S. is, of course, current broadcast regulations.

But what's the regulatory situation in Malawi--or other developing countries? What's to stop them from allowing long-distance radio transmission to access the new broadband cable connections that are being planned now to connect parts of eastern and southern Africa? The infrastructure for radio is already in place. Makes a lot of sense to leverage what's already there--along with cell phone towers and service--to solve the last-mile problem in Internet access.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

At Work with Malawi's Nurses

More evidence that the brain drain in nurses, doctors and other health care workers is heating up as an issue. Last week, the Lancet devoted a special issue to the lack of skilled health professionals in the developing world. (free to registered users)

Meanwhile I'm plugging along on my Malawi field research project (due to begin in June 2008). Here's the outline I gave the Nieman Foundation of what I plan to do and why. As with any journalistic enterprise, this is by no means the last word. So if you see something you think I'm missing or can suggest other sources, please let me know--preferably by using the comment form below (so that we can all learn a thing or two).

At Work with Malawi’s Nurses

Nieman Fellowship for Global Health Reporting
Proposed Field Project 2008

by Christine Gorman

Principal Goals: To tell the story of what Malawi, a small, land-locked country in southeastern Africa, is doing to hold on to its nurses. To use audio, visual and print media to capture the challenges and opportunities faced by a few Malawian nurses as they consider whether to emigrate to richer countries for higher paying jobs.

Overview: Improving health around the world depends on access to physical resources like clean water and effective medicines, widespread knowledge of best practices in health and medicine and the skilled personnel to deliver all of the above. And yet there is a tremendous and growing shortage of doctors, nurses and other health care workers worldwide. By one estimate the world needs an additional four million health workers—equitably distributed—just to meet minimum standards of health care.

Some parts of the globe are particularly hard hit by the lack of health care workers—especially sub-Saharan Africa. Making matters worse, many rich countries recruit health care workers from poor countries, contributing to the further degradation of services among those who can least afford it. But even the wealthiest nations cannot sustain these stopgap measures forever. For example, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the current nursing shortage in the U.S. and other rich countries of the world is fundamentally much more severe from previous ones and will soon become so great that those nations cannot simply buy their way out of it.

I would like to use my four-month field project to focus on one piece of this story: the global movement of nurses and how that complicates efforts to improve health care in the poorest parts of the world.

Malawi provides an excellent case study to examine both the push and pull factors in the global migration of nurses. It is a small country that has sent many nurses to England, Ireland and other countries. There’s a growing realization that all other international aid programs will fail unless the health-care-worker crisis is addressed. In 2005, Malawi launched a national program to train and retain health care workers. The program is unique in the development field—and something of an experiment—in that it specifically calls for international funds to supplement the salaries of nurses and other health workers.

Background: With just over 3,000 registered nurses (some sources suggest 7,000) in a country of more than 12 million people in 2003, Malawi does not have anywhere near enough nurses to meet its health care needs. Indeed, when Peter Piot of the UNAIDS and Suma Chakrabarti of the U.K’s Department for International Development (DFID) visited Malawi in 2004, they quickly determined that rolling out a large-scale anti-retroviral HIV treatment program would immediately drain the existing health care system of every available nurse, forcing it to collapse.

It’s not just that Malawi doesn’t train enough nurses to fill its needs but that other countries—particularly South Africa and the United Kingdom—attract a significant share of Malawi’s nursing graduates to higher paying jobs abroad. In 2003, the BBC reported that Malawi graduated 60 new registered nurses but that 100 RNs left for other countries—half of them landing in the U.K. In addition, a growing number of non-government organizations operating in Malawi are pulling nurses out of clinical practice to administrate their programs.

As a partial solution and perhaps in recognition of the role the U.K. has played in draining Malawi of many of its nurses, DFID launched a 100 million pound program to strengthen Malawi’s health care system. A major part of that effort is the Emergency Human Resource Program, which is paying additional salary stipends for nurses and other health care professionals as an incentive to keep them in the public health care system.

Since donors don’t usually pay for salaries of health care workers (and indeed the World Bank and International Monetary Fund frown on such actions, arguing they are unsustainable), DFID and the Malawian government had to persuade the international financial authorities to make an exception in their case. “That was breaking a taboo,” Piot told me in Boston in February 2008 . “Normally, donators don’t pay for salaries—except for people from the donor country. Sorry to be blunt about it.”

How is the Emergency Human Resource Program faring? Are the numbers of nurses working in public hospitals on the rise? Are the stipends large enough to stem the flow of skilled nursing professionals emigrating from Malawi? What other factors—such as working conditions, opportunities for professional development, educational needs of offspring, the possibility of sending remittances to family members—play a role in determining whether a nurse stays in Malawi or chooses to emigrate? What different levels of nursing are there in Malawi and how do their skills complement each other? Has the Emergency Program found the right balance between graduate and auxiliary nurses?

The best way to find out the answers to these and other questions is to go directly to the source—the nurses themselves. By telling a few carefully chosen stories, I hope to give an accurate and in-depth look at the complexity of training and retaining skilled nursing personnel. Because this is a journalistic and not an academic enterprise, I propose to follow the nurses in their daily lives both inside and outside of the hospitals, as they go to market, as they talk about their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families and their country. Have they always had enough to eat? Dealt with violence at home or at work?

Although 85% of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas, most of its registered nurses and doctors practice in urban areas. Private or for-profit health care in Malawi is virtually non-existent. The bulk of health care is provided by the government through the Ministry of Health. An additional, significant player is the Christian Health Association of Malawi, which provides anywhere from 25% to 40% of the country’s health care—much of it centered in rural areas.

Malawi has one university-affiliated nursing school, the Kazumu College of Nursing in Lilongwe, which offers the registered nurse degree as well as other advanced practice degrees. Another eight nursing schools are hospital-based and scattered throughout the country and train so-called “enrolled nurses” who practice under the guidance of a RN.

Based on my studies at Harvard’s School of Public Health and interviews I’ve conducted with Professor Lincoln Chen and others, I already have a number of questions I would like to explore. Going on-site will no doubt reveal new areas to explore in building up the nursing foundation of Malawi’s health system.

Professional photographer Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick will accompany me on at least part of the trip. She has, among other projects, documented the lives of child soldiers in Uganda and profiled new mothers and their babies in maternity hospitals in Georgia (the country, not the state). Her presence will be a bonus for the Field Project (two for the price of one).

Traditional News Media: Field research in Malawi will serve as the basis for print articles and radio pieces. [ex CG: I snipped a couple sentences here detailing the specific media outlets I'm targeting for freelanced pieces.] The greatest success will likely be in finding and reporting stories that bridge international borders—such as the bond that grows between an elderly American and her Malawian homecare nurse, the competition between international recruiters who travel the world offering nurses the sorts of incentives that will induce them to work abroad.

Multi-Media: A special feature of the project will be the innovative use of internet and interactive media to tell the story of Malawi’s nurses and to fill in the details of the heretofore mostly invisible bridge that links nurses from poor countries such as Malawi to rich countries in the northern hemisphere. Digital slide shows with accompanying audio in the nurses’ own voices will help viewers relate to the choices and challenges these dedicated women and men face. Video clips will provide moving vignettes of nurses as they go about their daily lives—not just in health care settings but as they provide for their families, interact in their communities, consider the recruiting offers made by overseas nursing facilities, etc. These individual segments can be gathered into a single website as well as tailored to the needs of traditional media websites. Video/audio equipment and laptop on loan from Nieman Foundation.

Mapping the story: Let’s face it, most folks would find reading about the “international migration of skilled nursing personnel” a fairly yawn-inspiring endeavor. One way to tell that story in a vivid and more engaging way is through interactive mapping on the web that would trace the migration routes of Malawian nurses. This could work on two levels:

(1) a simpler option would be to aggregate available information collected from academic and other sources, outlining where Malawian nurses live and work around the world. This would be similar to the visualization of international statistics popularized by Hans Rosling of or Michael Gastner and Mark Newman of In both cases, tables of official figures are turned into visual representations so that relationships and inequities jump out more clearly—a sort of gestalt appreciation of detailed information that can be calibrated to either a global or a local scale.

(2) a more ambitious project would be to create a web-based social network for expatriate Malawian nurses in which they can enter whatever information they would like to share about themselves—hometown, whether they trained, where they are now living and how long they have been there. In addition to providing networking opportunities for communities abroad, such a network would, as it grows, could also support a network for publishing and exchanging global health news.

Such a database, which could also generate news stories as it grows and document trends in migration, could be generated from already existing software such as the People Finder Interchange Format (PFIF), an XML-based standard that was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to exchange and collate information about missing loved ones.

Expanding coverage of global health issues: The traditional news industry is going through a period of unprecedented retrenchment. International and beat reporting have been pared back dramatically. No one knows how or when this might all settle out. And yet, it is hard to see how improvements in global health can be achieved without sustained attention to global health issues—not simply to raise awareness but also to promote accountability, to document what works and what doesn’t.

The story of Malawi’s nursing crisis will have the greatest impact if it is told through both traditional media and Web-based technologies. I am eager to begin that journey.

Related stories:
Shifting Focus on Malawi's Nurses
Are Donors Promoting Corruption in Malawi?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tim Wirth: Philanthropy Needs to Shout More

Attended the plenary session on global health Monday morning at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Peter Piot (UNAIDS), Jim Kim (Harvard and PIH), Timothy Wirth (UN Foundation) were on the panel with David Baltimore moderating.

Piot talked about what makes AIDS unique, that we’re entering another stage in the epidemic—can no longer act as if we’re in an acute stage (But hasn’t that been true for quite a while?) Wondered how much he’s been stung by criticism over last November's revised AIDS figures.

Jim Kim gave another version of his pitch for creation of a science of health care delivery. New thing was that he acknowledged criticism from academics that “health care delivery” is not a basic science. Still, he plugged it. Also tackled the “is too much money being spent on HIV?” question. Not sure he’s found the right formula for that one yet.

Learned the most from Tim Wirth’s presentation. Wirth is the former senator from Colorado and now head of UN Foundation. He was on a breakfast panel I moderated at TIME’s Global Health Summit in 2005.

Wirth talked about a lack of accountability among non-profits and foundations. That foundations and non-profit world are too timid about joining the public conversation in areas that they know something about. Made five points:

1. Need for stronger advocacy. Most foundations are terrified by the idea of making political (small p) statements . This dates back to the Ford Foundation hearings in the late 1960s.

2. Imbalance of funding on climate change. Most money going into research to prevent climate change. Not enough n how to adapt to it/mitigate damage we already know is going to happen.

3. Health systems. Philanthropy needs to help move folks away from “stove-pipe funding.”

4. Budget advocacy. Claimed US government cutting aid to Rwanda at the same time that President Bush is visiting Rwanda.

5. Partnerships. Philanthropy can help private sector engage more thoroughly with the UN.

Afterwards, at the press availability, I asked Piot about Malawi and the DFID program to top up salaries for nurses and other health care workers. He promised to send me contact information for Erasmus Norat and Desmond Johns, who were both “there at the creation” of Malawi’s Human Resources Emergency Program. In talking about salary top-ups, Piot says the Malawi/DFID program is unique. “That was breaking a taboo," Piot said. "Normally donors don’t pay for salaries—except for people from the donor country—sorry to be blunt about it.”

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lament from a Public Hospital in Malawi

Victor Kaonga has a sobering assessment of conditions in Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi. This is part of the power of the press to hold governments and others--including individuals and international groups--to account for whatever realities exist on ground. The comments are also compelling, particularly as they widen the circle of accountability.

In a few short months, I'll be able to see things for myself--as well as report on how well the Malawian government's internationally funded program to make things better is doing.

Writing in the Nyasa Times, Kaonga says:

Is it true that there are too few doctors in Malawi yet we train so many that find good perks in Europe? I asked myself while recalling that the problem is simply retention of medical personnel and not necessarily that Malawi does not train any. I reminded myself that I had decided not to blame anyone for the mess in our public health system in Malawi.
But one thing I wished was available was a lobby for more funds even salaries for the medical personnel and resources. With due respect to civil society leaders and parliamentarians who earn huge salaries and yet only ‘work’ far less than the 24 hours doctors and nurses are on call, will anyone be passionately and unselfishly concerned about the plight of the health personnel in Malawi?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Do-It-Yourself Journalism

In case you hadn't noticed, the Web makes it possible for a lot more people--other than paid journalists to do the job of journalism.

I'm struck by how many folks in the global health community are at least considering that challenge. There's still some uncomfortable--for me at least--confusion about advocacy and promotion vs. news reporting. But I think a trend or at least a trendlet is starting.

There's also a growing list of online resources for non-journalists who want to join the conversation.

Here are a few I've been impressed by. I'll add more as I come across them:

The Poynter Institutes Journalism Resource Center, full of how-tos, bibilographies and lots of links.

Legal Issues:
Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center

The Citizen Media Legal Guide from the folks at Harvard's Berkman Center

New Media
Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive (also available in Spanish and Portuguse)

Soundslides Create Flash animated slide shows (with audio narration) without having to know (or buy) Flash

Audacity. A cross-platform sound editor. Not always intuitive but the right price.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Organizing My Malawi Contacts

Thanks to Nchenga and Sue Makin for sending along more contact information about the nursing crisis in Malawi.

Am starting to collate all the names and contact information I've received into a single data set so that I can keep track of everyone.

As part of that process I've discovered a new (to me at least) use of the Google e-mail program. By adding certain contacts to a distribution list called Malawi, I'm generating a nice database of names and addresses.

But it doesn't stop there. By exporting my Malawi contact list to an Excel spreadsheet, I can sort the names on certain key values--for example, where they are located geographically or by topics.

This sort of structured data is becoming more and more important to how journalists do their jobs. (Even back in the 1990s, we would often send out blanket emails to a our own personal distribution lists looking for sources on particular issues.)

But there comes a point at which even e-mail becomes too unwieldy. (Just what is the upper limit on how many e-mail relationships can you handle at once--anyway?)

One of the people who may help us crash through those barriers is Judith Donath at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Donath gave a presentation about "social media" at the Berkman Center at lunch today that just blew my mind. But I think I'm going to have to sleep on it a bit--and study MIT's social media website a little more closer before I can even begin to talk about it coherently. I have a feeling though, that there's going to be plenty of meat there for folks who want to organize global conversations on important health issues.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gathering Background on Malawi Nurses

Since my four-month field project later this year is going to focus on nurses in Malawi, one of the first steps is figuring out what kind of background material is already available. Since I'm a journalist--and we have notoriously short attention spans--this won't be as exhaustive as an academic literature search. But I hope to hit some of the highlights so that I at least sound prepared when I go to meet the true experts--the nurses themselves.

I'll admit I'm having a little trouble organizing what I know so far since it's coming at me in e-mail responses, web searches, advice from actual people in real-live conversations and books that have been given or sent to me, but here are three items that jump out so far:

"Human Resources for Health: Overcoming the Crisis," a Joint Learning Initiative led by Lincoln Chen of Harvard University, Jo Ivey Boufford at New York University and others. This book contains an overview of the health worker crisis around the world with plenty of statistics.

The HRH Global Resources Center. (HRH stands for Human Resources for Health, not His/Her Royal Highness.) This USAID-funded project pulls together a lot of web-based information that you can sort by country, topic and somewhat by language (English, French and Spanish). A little bit of searching found this series of academic papers about Malawi's efforts to retain nurses, doctors and other skilled health professionals.

International Programs. More specifically, in 2005 the United Kingdom and Malawi launched a program to help Malawi retain more of its nurses and other health care professionals. Part of this effort is the Human Resources Emergency Response Program (don't you just love all these long official names?), which has the radical idea of simply paying nurses more money. (Most international donor programs don't offer salaries to service providers because that is thought to be unsustainable. After all, what do you do once the 5-year program is over?)

Haven't learned a lot from the official memos but expect to learn more when I meet some of the people who helped set up the program, like Dr. Ann Phoya, who I am told was Director of Nursing for Malawi at the time the program was set up and now helps to run it.

A news search for Phoya's name turned up this piece from The Observer in which she talks about some of the limitations that have emerged. Indeed, a press release on the official website of the Malawian Ministry of Health suggests that at least some nurse midwives are contemplating going out on strike.