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Storytelling Matters – Help Us Shed Light on Health Disparities

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting in San Diego. During the meeting, I attended several sessions focused on the utility of alternative research methods, including PhotoVoice and digital storytelling, in identifying and describing the root causes of health disparities. These presentations reminded me of the “Trends in Global Health” blog post authored by former HVO board chair and current Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen, PhD, MSW. Remembering her experience working with an interprofessional team to assess 12 maternity clinics in rural Malawi, Dr. Olsen wrote:

“My students and I learned that actions that seem small to us—exchanging stories, listening to our colleagues, asking questions and acknowledging their work—might make a tremendous difference to the providers we seek to support. Sharing histories and traditions with health workers in resource-scarce countries is a critical step toward improving global health outcomes. Positive change often begins with time spent sitting together as equals.”

HVO volunteers impart critical knowledge to their colleagues at local health institutions in resource-scarce countries. However, our volunteers also have the opportunity to gain valuable insights into local barriers to care and the innovative solutions being used to overcome challenges and better serve patients. It is this bidirectional exchange of ideas and experiences, rather than a one-way flow of information, that leads to sustainable improvements in the quality and availability of health care across the globe.

For example, by keeping in touch with former dermatology trainee Dr. Leo Odongo, HVO volunteer Alexia Knapp, MD learned of his efforts to reach patients in rural Uganda through outreach clinics, and connected him to the funding needed to sustain these clinics. Likewise, after learning from Dr. Knapp that many western textbooks fail to depict dermatologic conditions on darker skin tones, Dr. Odongo began obtaining consent to photograph patients’ skin conditions in order to fill this critical gap in western educational materials. In both instances, communication—the sharing of stories between colleagues and friends—led to the identification of factors contributing to health disparities and the resources needed to address these disparities.

As we enter this season of giving, we urge you to do what you can to support our mission to improve access to education and professional development opportunities for health workers in resource-scarce countries. This may mean making a gift to HVO, or it may mean sharing the story of HVO’s impact with your friends and family, whether you do so over social media or across the Thanksgiving dinner table. As the experience of Drs. Odongo and Knapp demonstrates—words have the power to move mountains and to improve health outcomes in communities across the globe. Your words of support bring us closer to our vision of a world where everyone, everywhere has access to quality health care. Thank you.

Want to share your words of support with our global health community? HVO is collecting videos from our supporters, volunteers and members. Use this form to share a brief video about why you support HVO; tell us why you volunteer, donate, talk about or share HVO with your networks.

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