Doctor who brings health care to remote Liberia wins $1 million

Woman holding twin children (Last Mile Health)
Clinical supervisor Rachel follows up on twin patients in Rivercess County, Liberia. (Last Mile Health)

“In our world, illness is universal, but access to care is not,” said Raj Panjabi, founder of Last Mile Health. His organization is trying to change that by training thousands of local workers to provide medical care in isolated areas of Liberia.

Those efforts recently earned him a $1 million award, the 2017 TED Prize, which is given every year “to a leader with a creative, bold wish to spark global change.”

An estimated 1 billion people lack access to health care because they live too far from a doctor or clinic.

“Dr. Panjabi and his team of community health workers have proven it possible to deliver world-class care in some of the most remote areas of the planet,” said Anna Verghese, prize director for TED, a nonprofit started in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converge.

Returning to Liberia

Close-up of Raj Panjabi (Last Mile Health)
Raj Panjabi (Last Mile Health)

After his family fled civil war in Liberia when he was 9, Panjabi returned to the country of his birth as a 24-year-old medical student, eager to help rebuild. Years of turmoil had taken their toll — 51 doctors remained to serve 4 million people.

Panjabi saw that city dwellers who lived where doctors remained stood a chance. But people seeking medical care in remote villages faced a dire choice: hours or days of trekking through rough terrain, or no care at all.

Panjabi founded what would become Last Mile Health in 2007 with a group of Liberian and American health workers.

“I want to see a health worker for everyone, everywhere, every day,” Panjabi said.

People breaking ground in field (Last Mile Health)
Staff from the Liberian Ministry of Health and Last Mile Health are joined by community members in breaking ground for a maternal waiting home. (Last Mile Health)

The network of remote community health workers was crucial in stopping the devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014. Panjabi said community health workers also helped identify and mobilize against a pertussis outbreak within days.

“They tell us it’s not possible to deliver care to people in the most remote stretches of our planet,” Panjabi said. “They tell us the economics won’t work; there are too many villages spread too far apart and it costs too much. They tell us it’s impossible to deliver health care to all people.”

But Liberia’s community health workers — and Panjabi’s Last Mile Health — have shown another way.