Indigenous Health International (IHI) has sights set on marginalized populations

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The global health community has made enormous strides in minimizing preventable diseases across the world. The drive to continue finding solutions to the world’s greatest health problems has sustained powerful momentum for over 20 years.

While researchers have hit many milestones in combating, and even eradicating some diseases, it is critical to remember that there is still an enormous amount of work to be done and no room for complacency.

One Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) professor is contributing his part through research and fieldwork in regions of the world often overlooked. Leonard Egede, M.D., M.S., recently established Indigenous Health International (IHI), a non-profit charged with providing sustainable healthcare system infrastructure in tribal or indigenous regions across the world.

Egede is the Allen H. Johnson Endowed a Professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, and Center for Global Health advisory board member. He also directs the MUSC Center for Health Disparities Research, focusing his research mostly on minority health.

“We’d like to understand what factors are transferrable to new environments through emigration,” Egede said. “By looking at diabetes risk in Africa (e.g. Nigeria, Kenya, Congo, Ethiopia) compared to African-Americans here in the U.S., you can discern whether diet, environment, genetics or stress levels determine health outcomes—it’s important to go to the source.”

Start where you are; use what you have; do what you can. That best describes Egede and his approach to tackling global health issues through his research. Egede has dedicated much of his medical career to solving problems, determining cause and improving outcomes.

He hopes to expand his philosophy in the regions his non-profit services to promote not only sustainable models of healthcare delivery, but an enduring legacy of empowerment.

“I believe in empowering people to take care of themselves,” said Egede. “One of the things I see in terms of global health is that you have resource rich environments like America and there are many countries who struggle with what little resources they have. The truth is we can teach and help each other by improving outcomes through research and innovation that improves health for everyone—even those beyond our borders. In the end, by improving health globally, we keep America more secure.”

Currently, Egede’s non-profit is setting up sustainable healthcare infrastructure in the politically autonomous Panamanian region of Kuna Yala. Kuna is just a four-hour flight from mainland U.S., but has little western influence. In these rural conditions care is hard to come by.

IHI has partnered with Panama’s Ministry of Health and local Kuna people to build consensus, identify needs for capacity building, and implement a model of care delivery comprising dental, pediatric and primary care provision. An IHI team just returned from a medical mission trip to Kuna Yala in August and is planning a second trip for March of 2014.

It’s conventional wisdom for healthcare practitioners to use what’s available, more or less, to come up with the most salient deductions. Egede urges up-and-coming healthcare professionals to always strive for the best outcomes for the greatest number. He feels it’s important to promote global health medicine as a form of public service, rather than self-service.

IHI has staged their operation in a community-based clinic in Kuna to better identify with the local people. Developing trust in this region, where Americans are scarce, is important for longer term involvement. Trust is oftentimes the largest barrier in intervening in rural locales, especially regarding health.

“People have to understand precisely how changes will impact them,” explained Egede. “We have to build relationships at both the ground level and with the larger stakeholders. This requires a basic grasp of the language, creativity and flexibility.”

When asked who he finds suitable to work with IHI, Egede replied “We are looking for the next generation of change agents. Rather than talk about the problems, we’re more interested in those who want to go out there, do the work and effect change.” Those interested in volunteering or participating in future IHI trips should contact IHI at indigenoushealthinternational@gmail.com.