Antidote To Compassion Fatigue: Lessons From West Africa For US Health Care

Compassion fatigue has an antidote. True, our increasing global interconnectedness makes us more aware of suffering than ever before, and we can become weary of the seemingly infinite number of problems plaguing our fellow humans.

But that same interconnectedness allows us do more than just learn about what's happening around the world. We can learn from it.

This month, children in rural villages in Benin are getting access to life-saving health care that's arguably more cutting-edge and convenient than anything my kids get here in the United States. There, the complicated business of administering and keeping track of immunizations has been brilliantly designed and simplified.

In Benin, the problem isn't U.S.-style medical bureaucracy and the inconvenience of, say, getting paper vaccination records transferred from one pediatrician's office to another to ensure a child's immunizations are up-to-date. It's more serious than that: kids are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.

But I'd be delighted to have a solution like the one being piloted now in 24 clinics in a small West African country. It would help make the U.S. health care system more efficient and probably cheaper. In Benin, it's going to save lives.

Regional, traveling health care workers are going into villages equipped with coolers full of a variety of vaccines and lightweight netbook computers; these netbooks are loaded with specially designed software that identifies children by their fingerprints and keeps track of their immunization history in a central database.

"As the worker sees a child, she will ask the caretaker for the child's gender and approximate date of birth before scanning both of the child's thumbs," explains Mark Thomas, executive director of VaxTrac, the organization that developed the initiative.

"If the child has been seen before, the system will display which vaccines the child has received, which vaccines they are eligible for (based on time since last dose), and which vaccines should be administered that day (based on which vaccines the worker has on-hand). If a child is not in the system, a new entry is created and the worker is allowed to input past vaccination information."

The impact on individual children is that they will receive the right vaccines at the right time in the right dose, and have a better shot at a healthy life. This is fantastic news in a world where 2.5 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Following the six-month pilot project in Benin, VaxTrac will introduce the mobile units and training in Nepal and Ecuador, with plans to be up and running in more than a dozen countries within five years, ultimately serving 50 to 100 million people.

And there are other important public health benefits to this system, which aggregates the data collected by each of the mobile field immunization units .

"With the amassed data, health policy makers can get real-time reports and see hyperlocal coverage maps," Thomas explained. "They can better project where and when vaccine demand will occur; they can re-allocate resources to regions more in need; they can respond to outbreaks deliberately and effectively."

They can also reduce waste. A shocking 50 percent of vaccines go unused in some regions of the world because there is inadequate information about who needs which immunizations and where. VaxTrac aims to reduce that figure significantly.

Now, thanks to an award from Ashoka Changemakers and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio, VaxTrax will have the ability to bring its idea to other countries experiencing similar barriers. VaxTrac is one of three winning innovations in a global competition to highlight programs that are replicable across borders and in a wide variety of settings.

Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders awarded $10,000 each to VaxTrac; Saúde Criança, a holistic health initiative in Brazil; and E HealthPoint, a rural health solution using videoconferencing in India.

"The Innovations for Health competition demonstrated that much of the world is trying to solve similar challenges in access to quality health care. By considering international solutions to those challenges, we can bridge gaps in health models around the world," said Brian Quinn, PhD, team director of the Pioneer Portfolio.

VaxTrac is just one example of the common ground we all share when it comes to health care -- and the type of global impact that collective efforts make possible.

This could have been a story about how 2.5 million kids die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Instead, it's a story about how we are learning from creative innovations on the other side of the world -- innovations that are addressing problems not so different from our own. By sharing those ideas, we discover how to improve the lives of people in our own communities and around the world.

Goodbye, compassion fatigue!