700 Miles Away: A New View of U.S. Health Care

Oct 10, 2011, 1:55 PM, Posted by


Did you know the average Haitian physician sees about 100 patients a day? Can you imagine if your doctor had to see 100 patients a day? Trust me, remembering your name would be the least of her problems! In a country with rampant chronic and infectious diseases, the poor health state – and an ambiguous health care system – can be overwhelming for Haitian health care professionals. Many of them leave the country in hopes of a better career and life.

But simultaneously, an overwhelming number of U.S. physicians are traveling to the shores of Haiti. They’re providing humanitarian aid and lifting a burden, intervening before Haitian health care professionals decide to flee their own country.

And they’re doing it through Doctors United For Haiti, an organization I started in 2006 to help my parents’ native country.

Doctors United For Haiti (DUFH) has created an academic environment in which both American and Haitian health care professionals benefit. Our program creates an opportunity for doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, mental health professionals and health administrators to share and exchange knowledge in a non-threatening environment. This academic approach was created as an opportunity to empower, educate and support Haitian health care professionals as they deliver quality care to their own people.

Simultaneously, it provides opportunities for American health care professionals to receive global health training. While this model is obviously providing opportunities for improvement in Haiti, our doctors will return with skills that will save our own system money and make it run more efficiently.

Doctors who register at DUFH.org are contacted with information about their Haitian counterpart. Once their trip is arranged they typically stay in Haiti one to two weeks, working as part of an integrated team to help alleviate patient load for the Haitian doctor.

Doctors participate in educational discussions with other Haitian professionals in their field. They exchange knowledge on disease processes, physical examination skills, treatment options and system approaches to care. Upon return to the United States they write a perspective on the experience that provides feedback to improve subsequent experiences. (You can also read this online at www.dufh.org.)

You might be wondering: what more can these experiences teach our doctors they didn’t learn in medical school or practice? Working in an underdeveloped country teaches cultural humility. It teaches doctors about potential new health problems and diseases that have not yet reached the United States. Just think about 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and H1N1 outbreak – they caused many health problems that were not common to us. I think you would want your doctor to be prepared for anything.

The United States health care system is also experiencing problems because of a lack of providers in key professions and locations, like rural or underserved communities. Gaining experience in another country may help a physician discover a passion for helping a vulnerable population – a passion our country could desperately use when they return home.

Doctors United for Haiti is unique, groundbreaking but more importantly, simple. It is the first academic, non-governmental organization that is dedicated to improving the health care system both in Haiti and the U.S. through continued medical education for everyone that participates. Would you agree that the only way to transform health care in Haiti is through education? I think we can transform our own health care system through education as well.

DUFH has identified with many Haitian health care professionals in Haiti that are dedicated to staying in their country to help their own people – all we have to do is support them. And we have not only embraced the theory of building capacity as a vehicle to sustainability in Haiti, but we have demonstrated a model that can potentially be replicated in other developing countries.

So are you ready to cross the border over to Haiti? Don’t worry; it is only 700 miles away from our shores! I hope I at least convinced you that altruism is truly an American way. (Not to mention – extra incentive – Verizon has great international rates!)

Get more information on Doctors United for Haiti.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.