Charleston is known for its top-notch health care system. As the home of the Medical University of South Carolina, it is often on the brink of new medical technology and innovations. While the emergence of COVID-19 has opened a lot of people’s eyes to just how important the health care system is, it’s easy to take our access to high-quality care for granted.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine what life is like in other parts of the world, where health care is the exception rather than the rule.
That’s something Michael O’Neal and Dr. Edward O’Bryan would like to see change through OneWorld Health, a local nonprofit organization.
OneWorld Health works to provide a full spectrum of health care services to developing countries in East Africa and Central America.
“The countries we serve are some of the lowest socioeconomic countries in the world and have basically access to a public health system that is wildly underfunded and unable to meet even a fraction of the demand of their citizens,” said Dr. O’Bryan, a co-founder and chief medical officer of OWH and also executive director of MUSC Health Solutions. “We know we can have a very big impact.”
Unlike other organizations that provide relief to countries in a time of need, OneWorld Health strives to create sustainable health care facilities that will be a permanent fixture in the communities they serve.
“The goal has always been to go beyond relief-based care,” said Executive Director Michael O’Neal. “OWH is not an emergency response organization. We do not swoop into war-torn countries or set up relief programs after natural disasters. We provide quality, affordable health care using a sustainable social enterprise model for the long haul.”
Their model is different from organizations that provide relief in a number of other ways, too. As O’Neal pointed out, OWH hires and trains the brightest local medical providers, which creates local ownership of the facilities.
“We identify the most talented clinicians and administrators in the countries,” O’Neal said. “They are already brilliant and really well-trained physicians, maybe just not as specialized as doctors in the States might be.”
Through partnerships with MUSC and other providers across the world, OWH gives these health care providers access to at least 75 hours of continuing medical education annually and helps get health care centers set up for success within their communities.
These facilities use a fee-for-service model based on the local economies, which makes health care affordable without relying on donations for direct care.
“Our deliberate model ensures that we are there to serve the community for generations to come,” O’Neal said.
The medical centers established by OWH are designed to be 100% self-sufficient in 18 to 24 months.
Since opening its first facility in 2011, OWH has provided care to more than 425,000 patients through 12 medical centers – 11 permanent facilities and one mobile medical unit – in Nicaragua and Uganda. In the last year, they’ve also begun to scale their efforts into Honduras. O’Neal said the organization is projected to serve more than 100,000 patients this year.
As COVID-19 cases spread across the globe, of course, Uganda, Nicaragua and Honduras are going to be impacted. OWH remains committed to providing health care in those areas – their fragile health care systems are likely to be devastated by the pandemic.
“There is already a lack of access to lifesaving equipment, and the strain on this system is only set to increase,” O’Neal said. “Our work fortifies these systems by remaining open, providing quality, affordable health care and employing skilled medical professionals in the communities that we serve.”
While other nonprofits offering medical care will have to close as medical professionals return to their own countries, the local doctors and administrators who staff OWH facilities will remain in place. And just as many health care providers in the United States are shifting their model to include more support for patients through telehealth, OWH has developed a telehealth platform.
Other measures OWH is taking include additional staff training, acquiring personal protective equipment and establishing off-site treatment spaces for immunocompromised patients. The organization is also launching public health campaigns in Central America to make sure the public has access to accurate information about the virus.
In both Central America and East Africa, OWH is working with local governments to help shape health and safety protocols.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” said Dr. O’Bryan. “We want to be a part of a big system that makes a big difference.”
For more information on OneWorld Health, visit www.oneworldhealth.com.
By Erica Rodefer Winters