SEATTLE — The average Tanzanian is expected to live for about 65 years. This is an increase of six years within the last decade. The increasing life expectancy may be indicative of improved health services in the region. However, even with medical advancements, the more than 13 million Tanzanians living on less than $1 a day still face barriers in accessing health services. Fortunately, several nonprofits have gathered volunteers to open mobile clinics in Tanzania in order to assist the poor.
Tanzanians Struggle to Get Adequate Healthcare at Public Facilities
According to a 2016 report released by the National Institute for Medical Research, the greatest barriers to healthcare are the cost of care, the availability of services and the distance from facilities. Private facilities are reported to have better availability of medicine, equipment, qualified providers, diagnostic facilities and patient-provider relationships. However, due to economic limitations, the majority must rely on public facilities. Unfortunately, public facilities often lack adequate supplies and staff. Furthermore, public facilities are more susceptible to nepotism and bribery.
More than half of the patients participating in the study reported that they were unable to access the necessary medicines during their last healthcare visit. Citing a facility shortage, patients at public facilities are told they must buy their medicines from local pharmacies. However, it is suspected that the local pharmacies are owned by the same providers. In fact, it is suspected that public facilities are purposely relocating their stock to these pharmacies so that patients are forced to purchase the medicine as a result of the shortage.
Some public facilities place further economic strain on patients by requiring payment for services that would typically be free. Pregnant women and children are legally entitled to free treatment, though several Tanzanians report that they were charged regardless. Likewise, treatment for HIV is supposed to be free of cost, yet patients are still being charged. In fact, some report that they are being charged multiple times for the same ailment.
According to healthcare providers in the region, the shortcomings in the public facilities are due to strained resources. Simply put, the facilities are understaffed, which results in overworked personnel and neglected patients. The emergence of mobile clinics helps lighten the burden on these facilities.
Mobile Clinics in Tanzania Fill a Gap in Existing Health Services and Education
MEDLIFE (Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere) is one of a growing number of nonprofits providing mobile clinics in Tanzania in order to help those who are unable to access traditional healthcare services. Founded in 2005 by Nick Ellis, MEDLIFE focuses not only on providing healthcare services through their mobile clinics, but also on providing health education programs and service projects to reach community development goals. At the moment, the organization works in developing countries such as Peru, Ecuador and Tanzania.
The Borgen Project talked to volunteer Mackenzie Wilson, a pre-med undergraduate student studying microbiology at Miami University, who was based in villages around Kilimanjaro in January 2017. Wilson told The Borgen Project that the illnesses she encountered were unexpected. “When most of us think of Africa, we think of emaciated children and HIV and malaria and Ebola…Those exist, of course, but I never once saw them.” Wilson reports that most of the patients suffer from common ailments that are seen in the United States. However, because the patients have not received any education on basic sanitation practices, the patients are unable to treat themselves.
Wilson offers the example of food poisoning. In the United States, someone ill with food poisoning would most likely have access to a private bathroom and clean drinking water. Thus, while the ailment would be unpleasant for an American, it is simply remedied. In the poor communities of Tanzania, the ill person has to dig “a hole somewhere while a family member brings [them]water to sip from the river—the same river [they]bathed in and disposed of [their]waste in earlier.”
MEDLIFE Works to Overcome Obstacles to More Expansive Care
Though the majority of patients require simple treatments, the MEDLIFE mobile clinics also provide services ranging from writing prescriptions for multivitamins and painkillers to draining abscesses or diagnosing cancer. However, not unlike government health facilities, these clinics must operate with a limited supply. The clinic can only supply a prescription for two weeks of medication. While it works great for conditions with a short-term treatment program, it has a minimal impact on those with chronic conditions.
That being said, MEDLIFE provides multiple services to ensure that the positive impact of these clinics lasts long after the volunteers leave. MEDLIFE has a long-term patient program, offering select patients access to ongoing medical care once the clinic has relocated. In order to encourage trust in local doctors and professionals, MEDLIFE also employs three local doctors to assist in the clinics. Wilson explains that there is a stigma associated with the local doctors. The patients assume that Western medicine is superior medicine. MEDLIFE works to ensure the locals know that their own doctors are equipped for the job.
While mobile clinics are hardly a permanent solution to current inadequacies in Tanzanian healthcare services, they do prove to be a useful alternative to traditional healthcare barriers. The services are free. They are coupled with basic health education and community service projects. By combining these three focuses, MEDLIFE’s mobile clinics in Tanzania are able to create a lasting impact in neglected and impoverished communities.
– Joanna Dooley