Jane Muthoni has lived with Type 1 diabetes since she was six years old, but she didn’t know how to manage it until her second pregnancy. It’s one reason she made it her life’s work to educate others living with the disease.
As the Patient Engagement Lead for Medtronic LABS in Kenya, she runs support groups in rural communities. She also trains a critical group of people — community health workers (CHWs), nearly all of whom are women.
At least 120,000 people die from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Kenya each year. As deaths from NCDs continue to rise across Africa, Medtronic LABS’ model of pairing tech with community health workers is more important than ever.
Community health programs like this are one of the most effective strategies to improve access to quality healthcare in rural and remote areas.
And women like Muthoni and the CHWs she trains are crucial to this mission.
Women make up the majority of community health workers in the 10 countries where LABS works. And globally, seven out of 10 health and social care workers are women.
“The importance of women is not even measurable,” Muthoni said.
Tech-enabled community care
Two-thirds of all deaths in low and middle-income countries are due to NCDs. In Kenya alone, where LABS recently expanded to a national scale, around 6 million people are living with hypertension and diabetes, said Ruchika Singhal, President of Medtronic LABS.
Kenyans once considered hypertension and diabetes as diseases that only affect the rich, but many are starting to see the effects of NCDs in their own villages and in their own families. But there is only one physician per 1,000 people in the country of over 54 million, many of whom live in hard-to-reach places.
LABS is addressing this barrier to care by training over 300 CHWs to screen patients for hypertension and diabetes and use LABS’ digital health platform, SPICE, which was designed for community health workers and healthcare providers operating in low-resource settings.
The tech platform helps streamline care for both patients and healthcare practitioners, who get an alert if there’s a high blood pressure reading in the field. The dashboard is the first of its kind to track health outcomes and population health indicators in real time.
But CHWs aren’t just screening the 40,000 patients enrolled in the Empower Health program for hypertension and diabetes; they’re connecting them to care and regularly following up to make sure they’re managing their disease.
The power of CHWs lies in their ability to develop one-on-one relationships with patients and providers. As a result, according to the World Health Organization, they have the potential to improve health and quality of life in rural communities.
Regina Lthusi sees the impact firsthand. Trained with LABS in 2021, she’s been a CHW for 10 years.
Dressed in a T-shirt with the hashtag “empower yourself” and equipped with a tablet or cell phone with SPICE, a weighing scale, blood pressure monitor and blood glucometer, she regularly visits 20 households in her community in Makueni County.
The village is nestled on a mountain four times the height of the Empire State Building.
“As a CHW, I know that this is important because there are people who can’t reach healthcare providers,” Lthusi said. “It brings me joy because when someone knows their condition, they feel comfortable and empowered.”
Health starts at home
She credits her passion for the work to her “motherly heart.”
“I feel good being a woman CHW because I start from my own family and then go into the community,” she said.
That’s true for many of the CHWs in the region. For women in Kenya, health starts with the family, Muthoni said.
Women also have higher health-seeking behavior, said Eric Angula, Head of Partnerships and Government Affairs in Africa for Medtronic LABS.
Many assume that women dominate the community health space because they aren’t working, but that’s just not true, he said. Many women work in small business, on farms, and in a variety of settings.
“They leave their tomatoes to check patients’ blood pressure and then go back,” he said. “That is the kind of dedication we’re seeing from women.”
Afterall, as Muthoni said, “Empower one woman, and you empower the entire nation.”