In working to build a future where people everywhere have access to safe, respectful, and high-quality healthcare, we have seen first-hand how for many around the world, attaining good health is a complicated undertaking that depends on much more than just their ability to get to a good doctor when they are sick.
For many Watsi patients, a healthy life is influenced by numerous factors, many of which remain largely out of their own control. These system-level determinants can at times seem invisible, even though the impact felt from them is very real and present in a patient’s life. A patient’s social and built environment, and the resulting educational and economic opportunities or lack thereof, either positions them with a greater chance to enjoy a healthier life or adds to the struggle of staying healthy.
Beth Wangigi, leading our Watsi partnership with African Mission Healthcare, shared with us:
“Those lacking sufficient income channels and savings often end up foregoing treatment due to the cost factor. Poor health forces the patient and their family to choose between seeking treatment and meeting other basic needs. It is not uncommon to find assets being sold to offset medical bills. Where a chronic illness is involved, seeking treatment has led many households into further impoverishment.”
Such is the case with Mary, a Watsi patient who runs a small eatery earning approximately $2 per day while her husband tends to their small-scale farm. They own one cow and their family relies on proceeds from the eatery and from selling milk from the cow to make ends meet.
When Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer and her doctors told her she needed an urgent mastectomy to prevent metastasis, she and her husband were faced with the difficult decision of selling their cow in order for Mary to seek medical attention. Even then, they barely had enough to cover the tests and the proposed treatment thereafter. Fortunately, the Watsi community came together to fund Mary’s surgery after her story was shared on our platform. Mary told us, “I am happy today having received this surgery and am going home. I have joy beyond measure. God bless you all for the support.”
Mary is one of the countless patients we meet where basic family needs have been sacrificed in order to access essential medical care. In fact, a groundbreaking study by The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery estimates that 33 million people globally face catastrophic expenditure each year to access surgery and an additional 48 million people on top of that when you take into account related costs such as food and transportation needed to access surgical treatment.
Over the years we’ve learned that at the core of health disparities across the globe there is a phenomenon called the health-poverty cycle: income inequality, often perpetuated and exacerbated by historical oppression, leading to social and built environments that foster poorer health and lower educational attainment. This, in turn, puts communities we are trying to reach at higher risk of disease and early death.
Individuals in these communities, including our patients, are often caught in a negative feedback loop which begins with their social and built environment, the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the stressors they face.
If, for example, a baby is born and grows up in an area where there is poor air and water quality, limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, high rates of violence, or insufficient access to essential healthcare services, they are at a higher risk of having or developing conditions such as genu varum (bowleggedness), neural tube defects, or cardiac abnormalities, all of which may require surgical intervention. In fact, birth conditions along with other limb defects and hydrocephalus accounted for about one out of every five Watsi patients in 2020.
Khin is a 25-year-old from Burma who is also impacted by this cycle. He had surgery for a bowel malformation that required a colostomy. However, when his colostomy needed to be closed, he was unable to receive the medical care he needed because his poor health prevented him from earning income. His wife, who works as a seamstress and who became the family’s sole breadwinner when Khin fell ill, has also been unable to find work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Khin told us before his surgery, “I feel sad that I cannot work and have to depend on my wife’s income. When I was admitted to the hospital, my wife had to accompany me which also reduced the salary she received.”
However, with the help of Watsi's global community and the expertise of our local medical partner, Burma Children Medical Fund, Khin was able to access the surgical care he needed to close his colostomy. This life-changing surgery not only restored his normal bowel function and prevented future complications, but also enabled him to have a better quality of life and to regain his family’s independence.
He shared with us, “I am very grateful that I received successful surgery. Now, I’ve become a healthy and normal person again. Your support is really helpful for myself and my family’s financial situation. If it is not for your help I could not afford my treatment cost as I have no savings.”
Breaking the cycle
We hope that one day organizations like Watsi will become obsolete because our efforts will have collectively helped the world come together to achieve global health equity and health for all. Until then, however, the continued need for Watsi and the critical financial support our community provides illustrate the broken systems that exist worldwide and how, as a result, patients are being left behind.
As Beth further shared:
“Productive partnerships, with frontline hospitals and donors like Watsi supporters, enable communities in need to access quality health care. Mission hospitals like ours in Africa are positioned to offer high-quality surgical and medical interventions to communities in need. Programs like Watsi contribute to restoring the well-being of individuals and their community, and protects them from the health-poverty trap by facilitating access to safe, high-quality, and respectful medical care. The result is a gradual process of breaking barriers to healthcare accessibility which creates a ‘butterfly-effect’ that further shields communities from the health-poverty trap.”
There are countless social, environmental, and economic determinants of health that play a role in the health-poverty cycle. At Watsi, we are focused on the economic piece of the puzzle: removing the financial barrier at the point of care in hopes of shielding people from crushing medical debt, delaying needed healthcare, or not having treatment at all.
You can join us on our journey towards breaking the health-poverty cycle by becoming a monthly supporter today and helping us create a more equitable, healthier tomorrow.
Co-Authored by Laura & Mackinnon at Watsi
The Watsi Team
Everyone deserves healthcare.