By Sandy Garcon, Senior Manager, Advocacy and Communications, PSI
Global health experts from around the world are joining the first-ever virtual World Health Assembly (WHA) to discuss one topic – COVID-19. While the topic this year is limited to one virus it will touch on many aspects of the pandemic. We, the Self-Care Trailblazer Group, believe that one area of critical discussion is self-care – because it is certainly on the minds of billions of people around the planet.
The term self-care can mean different things to different people. What it means in practice is that people take measures to prevent disease, promote health and cope with illness and disability with and without a health care provider. When we wear masks, physically distance, and wash our hands we are practicing self-care. Our governments are promoting self-care when they provide us with self-diagnosis guidelines to check if our symptoms match that of COVID-19 symptoms.
The importance of self-care has never been more evident as health systems around the world are trying to treat patients with COVID-19 while not becoming overburdened. Health experts are learning what services and information can be provided with less dependency on health workers. They’re seeing that self-care is a critical answer to COVID-19 by helping protect frontline health workers, maintain access, and ensure healthcare is provided at scale.
But self-care is not new, it is not limited to COVID-19, and it will continue after the pandemic has ended.
Self-care can encompass many different aspects of care and is particularly effective in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) given the deeply personal nature of sexuality and reproduction and the stigma and barriers individuals can face in accessing information, products and services. Self-care in SRHR takes many forms such as drugs, devices, diagnostics, and digital health. It allows individuals to participate in their healthcare in ways that were not accessible in the past.
Self-care is people taking PrEP to prevent HIV. Self-care occurs when a woman self-administers injectable contraception or collects an HPV sample in the privacy of her own home. As highlighted in the WHO consolidated guideline on self-care interventions for health: sexual and reproductive health and rights, self-care is not a false choice between the healthcare worker and the individual. Self-care at its best has a role for both the individual and the health system. For example, self-care allows a woman to have the control and privacy to collect her own specimens for HPV screening for cervical cancer, but the health system is still needed to review and interpret the results and offer treatment, when necessary. Self-injected contraception and oral PrEP for HIV prevention are taken by the individual, but they require initial contact with the health system.
These examples show how individuals can become active, empowered agents, in their own health. But, the accessibility of self-care is not up to the individual. It is dependent on the support of governments and policymakers to ensure there is deliberate integration of self-care into health policy, program, and practice. Governments around the world play an important role in promoting meaningful community engagement, creating health systems that value the preferences of communities in programs and policies, and strengthening investments in rights education to promote heath literacy and encourage individual autonomy and decision-making.
Self-care would have been part of the future of healthcare regardless of COVID-19, but the pandemic presents an opportunity for policymakers and global health experts to create stronger health systems and public health capacity that recognizes and supports self-care as an essential part of the healthcare system. So as global health experts speak during the WHA and work in their countries to tackle the many challenges facing health care systems brought on by the pandemic, they should know that the power to prevent disease, promote health, and cope with disabilities depends on people having the ability to practice self-care.
Banner image credit: Natasha Sweeney/PSI
For over 50 years, PSI’s social businesses have worked globally to generate demand, design health solutions with our consumers, and work with local partners to bring quality and affordable healthcare products and services to the market. Now consolidating under VIYA, PSI’s first sexual health and wellness brand and social business, our portfolio represents the evolution from traditionally donor–funded projects towards a stronger focus on sustainability for health impact over the long term. Across 26 countries, the VIYA model takes a locally rooted, globally connected approach. We have local staff, partners and providers with a deep understanding of the markets we work in. In 2022, we partnered with over 47,000 pharmacies and 10,000 providers to reach 11 million consumers with products and services, delivering 137 million products. VIYA delivers lasting health impact across the reproductive health continuum, from menstruation to menopause. Consumer insights drive our work from start to finish. Their voices, from product exploration to design, launch, and sales, ensure that products not only meet consumers’ needs but exceed their expectations. The consumer is our CEO.
In 2019, our human-centered design work in East Africa explored ways that our work could support and accompany young women as they navigate the various choices required for a healthy, enjoyable sexual and reproductive life. Harnessing insights from consumers, VIYA is revolutionizing women’s health by addressing the confusion, stigma, and unreliability surrounding sexual wellness. Across five markets – Guatemala, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Pakistan – VIYA utilizes technology to provide women with convenient, discreet, and enjoyable tools for making informed choices about their bodies. The platform offers a wealth of high-quality sexual wellness information, covering topics from periods to pleasure in an accessible and relatable manner. Additionally, VIYA fosters a supportive community where users can share experiences and receive guidance from counselors. In 2023, VIYA will begin offering a diverse range of sexual wellness products and connect users with trusted healthcare providers, ensuring comprehensive care tailored to individual needs.
By: Fana Abay, Marketing and Communications Director, PSI Ethiopia
In rural Ethiopia, women and girls often face significant barriers in accessing healthcare facilities, which can be located hours away. Moreover, there is a prevailing stigma surrounding the use of contraception, with concerns about potential infertility or the perception of promiscuity. To address these challenges, the Smart Start initiative has emerged, linking financial well-being with family planning through clear and relatable messaging that addresses the immediate needs of young couples—planning for the lives and families they envision. Smart Start takes a community-based approach, utilizing a network of dedicated Navigators who engage with women in their localities. These Navigators provide counseling and refer interested clients to Health Extension Workers or healthcare providers within Marie Stopes International-operated clinics for comprehensive contraceptive counseling and services.
In a significant development, PSI Ethiopia has digitized the proven counseling messaging of Smart Start, expanding its reach to more adolescent girls, young women, and couples. This approach aligns with the priorities set by the Ethiopian Ministry of Health (MOH) and is made possible through funding from Global Affairs Canada. The interactive and engaging digital messaging has revolutionized counseling services, enabling clients to make informed and confident decisions regarding both their finances and contraceptive choices.
Clients who received counseling with the digital Smart Start tool reported a higher understanding of their options and were more likely to choose contraception (74 percent) compared to those counseled with the manual version of Smart Start (64 percent). Navigators also found the digital tool more effective in connecting with clients, leading to higher ratings for the quality of their counseling.
By December 2023, PSI Ethiopia, working in close collaboration with the MOH, aims to reach over 50 thousand new clients by leveraging the digital counseling tool offered by Smart Start. This innovative approach allows for greater accessibility and effectiveness in providing sexual and reproductive health services, contributing to improved reproductive health outcomes for women and couples across the country.
By: Christopher Lourenço, Deputy Director, Malaria, PSI Global
Community health workers (CHWs) are critical lifelines in their communities. Ensuring they have the training, support, and equipment they need is essential to keep their communities safe from malaria, especially in the hardest to reach contexts.
For example, in Mali, access to formal health services remains challenging, with four in ten people living several miles from the nearest health center, all without reliable transportation or access. In 2009, the Ministry of Health adopted a community health strategy to reach this population. The U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) Impact Malaria project, funded by USAID and led by PSI, supports the Ministry with CHW training and supervision to localize health services.
In 2022, 328 thousand malaria cases were recorded by CHWs); 6.5 thousand severe malaria cases were referred to health centers, according to the national health information system.
During that time, the PMI Impact Malaria project (IM) designed and supported two rounds of supportive supervision of 123 CHWs in their workplaces in the IM-supported regions of Kayes and Koulikoro. This included developing and digitizing a standardized supervision checklist; and developing a methodology for selecting which CHWs to visit. Once a long list of CHW sites had been determined as accessible to supervisors for a day trip (including security reasons), the supervisors telephoned the CHWs to check when they would be available to receive a visit [as being a CHW is not a full-time job, and certain times of the year they are busy with agricultural work (planting, harvesting) or supporting health campaigns like mosquito net distribution].
Supervisors directly observed how CHWs performed malaria rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) and administered artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT). They recorded CHW performance using the digitized checklist, interviewed community members, reviewed records, and provided on-the-spot coaching. They also interviewed the CHWs and tried to resolve challenges they expressed, including with resupply of commodities or equipment immediately or soon afterwards.
Beyond the observed interactions with patients, supervisors heard from community members that they were pleased that CHWs were able to provide essential malaria services in the community. And the data shows the impact.
In IM-supported areas of Mali, 36% of CHWs in the first round were competent in performing the RDT, which rose to 53% in the second. 24% of CHWs in the first round compared to 38% in the second were competent in the treatment of fever cases and pre-referral counseling. Between both rounds, availability of ACT increased from 80 percent to 90 percent.
Supportive supervision with interviews and observations at sites improved the basic competencies of CHWs between the first and second rounds, and additional rounds will help to understand the longer-term programmatic benefits.
By: Dr. Dorothy Balaba, Country Representative, PSI Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, PSI leads the implementation of USAID Transform WASH (T/WASH) activity with consortium partners, SNV and IRC WASH. Contrary to traditional models that rely on distribution of free or heavily subsidized sanitation products, T/WASH utilizes a market-based sanitation approach. This approach creates sustainable and affordable solutions, by integrating market forces and supporting businesses to grow, while creating demand at the household level.
During the last six years, T/WASH has worked alongside the private sector and government (Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health, Ministry of Water and Energy, and Ministry of Labor and Skills), among other stakeholders, to increase household access to affordable, quality sanitation products and services. For example, more than 158 thousand households have invested in upgraded sanitation solutions with rapid expansion to come as the initiative scales and market growth accelerates.
T/WASH has successfully trained more than 500 small businesses, including community masons and other construction-related enterprises, with technical know-how in sanitation product installation, operational capacities, and marketing and sales skills needed to run successful, growing businesses. The Ethiopian government is now scaling the approach to all districts through various national, regional, and local institutions with requisite expertise. T/WASH has also worked the One WASH National Program, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Water and Energy, and Ministry of Labor and Skills to examine policies that influence increased household uptake of basic WASH services, such as targeted sanitation subsidies, tax reduction to increase affordability, and increased access to loan capital for business seeking to expand and households needing help to improve their facilities.
To share the journey to market-based sanitation, representatives of the Ethiopian Ministry of Health and the USAID Transform WASH team took to the stage at the UN Water Conference in 2023.
“Rather than relying on traditional aid models that often distribute free or heavily subsidized sanitation products, market-based sanitation creates sustainable and affordable solutions, integrating market forces and supporting businesses to grow.”
— Michael Negash, Deputy Chief Party of T/WASH
By: Dr Karin Hatzold, Associate Director HIV/TB/Hepatitis
Building upon the success and insights gained from our work with HIV self-testing (HIVST), PSI is actively applying this approach to better integrate self-care, more broadly, in the health system beginning with Hepatitis C and COVID-19. Self-testing has emerged as a powerful tool to increase access to integrated, differentiated, and decentralized health services, accelerating prevention, care, and treatment for various diseases, while also increasing health system resilience against COVID-19.
Here’s how we got there.
Seven years ago, the landscape of HIV self-testing lacked global guidelines, and only the U.S., the UK and France had policies in place that allowed for HIV self-testing. High disease burdened countries in low-and-middle-income-countries (LMICs) lacked evidence and guidance for HIVST despite major gaps in HIV diagnosis.
However, through the groundbreaking research from the Unitaid-funded HIV Self-Testing Africa (STAR) initiative led by PSI, we demonstrated that HIVST is not only safe and acceptable but also cost-effective for reaching populations at high risk with limited access to conventional HIV testing. This research played a pivotal role in informing the normative guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO) and shaping policies at the country level. As a result, more than 108 countries globally now have reported HIVST policies, with an increasing number of countries implementing and scaling up HIVST to complement and partially replace conventional testing services. This became especially significant as nations tried to sustain HIV services amidst the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By leveraging our expertise, PSI is conducting research to identify specific areas and populations where the adoption of Hepatitis C and COVID-19 self-testing could significantly enhance testing uptake and coverage. This research serves as the foundation for developing targeted strategies and interventions to expand access to self-testing, ensure that individuals have convenient and timely options for testing for these diseases, and are linked to care, treatment and prevention services through differentiated test and treat approaches.
By: Shawn Malone, Project Director, HIV/AIDS Gates Project in South Africa, PSI Global
In South Africa, where the HIV response has lagged in reaching men, PSI’s Coach Mpilo model has transformed the role of an HIV counselor or case manager into that of a coach and mentor who provides empathetic guidance and support based on his own experience of living with HIV. Coaches are men who are not just stable on treatment but also living proudly and openly with HIV. Situated within the community and collaborating closely with clinic staff, they identify and connect with men struggling with barriers to treatment and support them in overcoming those barriers, whether that means navigating the clinic or disclosing their HIV status to their loved ones.
PSI and Matchboxology first piloted the model in 2020 with implementing partners BroadReach Healthcare and Right to Care as well as the Department of Health in three districts of South Africa. Since then, the model has been rolled out by eight implementing partners in South Africa, employing more than 300 coaches and reaching tens of thousands of men living with HIV. To date, the model has linked 98 percent of clients to care and retained 94 percent of them, in sharp contrast to the estimated 70 percent of men with HIV in South Africa who are currently on treatment.
Given the success of the program, South Africa’s Department of Health and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have each embraced the Coach Mpilo model in their health strategy and are embedding it in their strategies and programs.
“The men we spoke to [while I was traveling to South Africa for a PrEP project with Maverick Collective by PSI] were not only decidedly open to the idea of taking a daily pill…many were willing to spread the word and encourage friends to get on PrEP too. We were able to uncover and support this new way forward because we had flexible funding to focus on truly understanding the community and the root barriers to PrEP adoption. This is the philanthropic funding model we need to effectively fight the HIV epidemic, and it’s beneficial for all sorts of social challenges.”
– Anu Khosla, Member, Maverick Collective by PSI
By: Hoa Nguyen, Country Director, PSI Vietnam
In late 2022, with funding from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, PSI and Babylon partnered to pilot AIOI in Vietnam. By combining Babylon’s AI symptom checker with PSI’s health provider locator tool, this digital health solution analyzes symptoms, recommends the appropriate level of care, and points them to health providers in their local area. The main goal is to support people in low-income communities to make informed decisions about their health and efficiently navigate the healthcare system, while reducing the burden on the healthcare workforce. The free 24/7 service saves people time and subsequent loss of income from taking time off work and from having to pay unnecessary out-of-pocket expenses. Under our global partnership with Meta, PSI launched a digital campaign to put this innovative product in the hands of people in Vietnam. By the end of June 2023 (in the nine months since product launch), 210 thousand people accessed the AIOI platform; 2.4 thousand people created personal accounts on the AIOI website, 4.8 thousand triages to Symptom Checker and linked 2.2 thousand people to health facilities.
Babylon’s AI symptom checker and PSI’s health provider locator tool captures real-time, quality data that supports health systems to plan, monitor and respond to consumer and provider needs. But for this data to be effective and useable, it needs to be available across the health system. Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) standard provides a common, open standard that enables this data exchange.
PSI’s first consumer-facing implementation of FHIR was launched in September 2022 as part of the Babylon Symptom Checker project in Vietnam, enabling rapid alignment between PSI and Babylon’s FHIR-enabled client records systems. PSI already has several other consumer health FHIR implementations under active development in 2023, including PSI’s collaboration with the Kenya MOH to launch a FHIR-enabled WhatsApp national health line for COVID-19 health information. PSI will also look to adopt and scale health workforce-facing FHIR-enabled tools, such as OpenSRP2, which will be piloted in an SRH-HIV prevention project in eSwatini in partnership with Ona by the end of 2023.
— Martin Dale, Director, Digital Health and Monitoring, PSI
By: Dr. Zayar Kyaw, Head of Health Security & Innovation, PSI Myanmar
Under a three-year investment from the Indo-Pacific Center for Health Security under Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), PSI is enhancing disease outbreak surveillance and public health emergency preparedness and response capacities in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. When PSI conducted a review of existing disease surveillance systems in Myanmar, it identified several gaps: although the Ministry of Health had systems in place for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and other communicable diseases, they were fragmented, with different reporting formats and reliance on paper-based reporting. In addition, private sector case surveillance data were not routinely captured, yet private clinics and pharmacies are the dominant health service delivery channel in the country. This hindered effective disease prevention and control efforts.
Building on our extensive private sector malaria surveillance work under the BMGF-funded GEMS project in the Greater Mekong Subregion, PSI implemented a case-based disease notification system using social media channels to overcome the limitations of paper-based and custom-built mobile reporting tools. These chatbots, accessible through popular social media platforms like Facebook Messenger and Viber, proved to be user-friendly and required minimal training, maintenance, and troubleshooting. The system was implemented in more than 550 clinics of the Sun Quality Health social franchise network as well as nearly 470 pharmacies. The captured information flows to a DHIS2 database used for real-time monitoring and analysis, enabling rapid detection of potential outbreaks. Local health authorities receive instant automated SMS notifications, enabling them to promptly perform case investigation and outbreak response.
In 2022, private clinics reported 1,440 malaria cases through the social media chatbots, while community mobilizers working with 475 private providers and community-based malaria volunteers reported more than 5,500 cases, leading to the detection of two local malaria outbreaks. Local health authorities were instantly notified, allowing them to take action to contain these surges in malaria transmission. During the same time, pharmacies referred 1,630 presumptive tuberculosis cases for confirmatory testing – a third of which were diagnosed as tuberculosis and enrolled into treatment programs.
By: Anya Fedorova, Country Representative, PSI Angola
The shortage of skilled health workers is widely acknowledged as a significant barrier to achieving Universal Health Coverage. To address this challenge, PSI supported ministries of health to develop a digital ecosystem that brings together stewardship, learning, and performance management (SLPM). The ecosystem enhances training, data-driven decision-making, and the efficiency of healthcare delivery.
Here’s what it looks like in practice.
In July 2020, PSI Angola, alongside the Angolan digital innovation company Appy People, launched Kassai, an eLearning platform that targets public sector health workers in Angola. Through funding from USAID and the President’s Malaria Initiatve (PMI), Kassai features 16 courses in malaria, family planning, and maternal and child health – with plans to expand learning topic areas through funding from ExxonMobil Foundation and private sector companies. A partnership with UNITEL, the largest telecommunication provider in Angola, provides all public health providers in Angola free internet access to use Kassai.
Kassai’s analytics system to follow learners’ success rate and to adjust the course content to learners’ performance and needs. Kassai analytics are integrated with DHIS2 – the Health Management Information System (HMIS) of Angolan MOH, to be able to link learners’ knowledge and performance with the health outcomes in the health facilities. The analytics track learners’ performance by course and gives visibility by health provider, health facility, municipality, and province. Each course has pre-and post-evaluation tests to track progress of learning, too.
By the end of 2022, there were 6,600 unique users on the Kassai platform and 31,000 course enrollments. PSI Angola’s partnership with UNITEL, the largest telecommunication provider in Angola, allows for free internet access to learn on the Kassai for all public health providers in Angola. Building on its success for malaria training, Kassai now also provides courses in family planning, COVID-19, and maternal and child health. This reduces training silos and provides cross-cutting benefits beyond a single disease.
Implementing the SLPM digital ecosystem brings numerous benefits to health systems. It allows for more strategic and efficient workforce training and performance management, enabling ministries of health to track changes in health workers’ knowledge, quality of care, service utilization, and health outcomes in real time. The ecosystem also supports better stewardship of mixed health systems by facilitating engagement with the private sector, aligning training programs and standards of care, and integrating private sector data into national HMIS. Furthermore, it enables the integration of community health workers into the broader health system, maximizing their impact and contribution to improving health outcomes and strengthening primary healthcare.
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With overarching commitments to flexibility in our work, and greater wellbeing for our employees, we want to ensure PSI is positioned for success with a global and holistic view of talent. Under our new “work from (almost) anywhere,” or “WFAA” philosophy, we are making the necessary investments to be an employer of record in more than half of U.S. states, and consider the U.S. as one single labor market for salary purposes. Globally, we recognize the need to compete for talent everywhere; we maintain a talent center in Nairobi and a mini-hub in Abidjan. PSI also already works with our Dutch-based European partner, PSI Europe, and we’re creating a virtual talent center in the UK.
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