Pro Mujer was recently invited to showcase its work at the 2nd Annual World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) Conference on February 17-18 in Doha, Qatar. WISH, which is an initiative of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, unites stakeholders from different countries and sectors to harness the power of collaboration to overcome the world’s most urgent healthcare challenges and inspire others to take action (Source: WISH, 2015). Out of all the 80 applications from 26 countries that WISH received, Pro Mujer was selected based on its innovative, sustainable, and scalable health operations that are made available to nearly 300,000 low-income microfinance clients and their families throughout Latin America. The following is a short interview with Jana Smith, our Director of Health Services who represented Pro Mujer at the conference along with Ivana Camacho, Pro Mujer’s Health Operations Coordinator in Bolivia.
- In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues in global health today, and how can Pro Mujer help to solve them?
Across the globe, obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are growing at an incredible rate; the worldwide prevalence of obesity has more than doubled between 1980 and 2014 (WHO, 2015), and diabetes has moved into the top five causes of death. Mexico for example, home to almost 40,000 Pro Mujer clients, has recently taken the place of the USA as the most obese country in the world. Chronic diseases account for 68% of mortality in Latin America and have led to losses in economic productivity upwards of several billion US dollars. These diseases, once thought of as a problem only for the richest nations, have transcended all income, cultural and geographic lines and now threaten the health and livelihood of some of the most vulnerable populations.
The good news is that many of these conditions can be addressed through lifestyle changes, and Pro Mujer is at the cutting edge of developing different behavior change initiatives in an effort to impact these serious, and often costly, conditions. For example, we run bi-annual, global health education campaigns using social marketing techniques and rigorously evaluate their effectiveness. In addition to face-to-face initiatives, we have also launched an interactive Facebook platform where we have built a supportive, digital community to support behavior change among staff and clients. Finally, we are transforming our centers into “Healthy Spaces” where our clients can purchase healthy food and drinks from client-run healthy snack bars, exercise, and leave their children to play and learn in Sesame Street educational corners. Behavior change is complex but we believe that through constant experimentation and rigorous evaluation, we can have an impact.
- Improving access to care is a key trend we see new services providing. What value and impact is this having?
I think as an industry we’ve realized that there is a big difference between availability and access. In all of the countries where we work, public healthcare is available at little or no cost in theory. The problem we see time and again is that our clients don’t access it until serious complications develop because of the poor quality and huge opportunity costs associated with accessing care at public facilities. What Pro Mujer does is remove the opportunity costs by providing high-quality care through a one-stop-shop model. This enables us to bridge the gap and reach our clients before complications arise.
- What service did Pro Mujer showcase at WISH?
We showcased our Integrated Women’s Empowerment and Healthcare Model, which provides a one-stop-shop opportunity for low-income women to access financial services, education and healthcare in one location specifically designed around their needs. This model is successful because it enables us to deliver high-quality services in a cost-efficient way that is convenient for our clients. At the same time, it also provides our clients with a welcoming social space where they can unwind and have a moment for themselves.
- Would this service have been possible 5, 10 or 15 years ago?
No. It’s very challenging managing the equivalent of a community bank and a family clinic all under one roof. It hasn’t always been easy, and we’ve learned a lot over the years. These years of experience operating on the ground have given us the expertise and confidence to innovate and move forward with more ambitious plans to provide a wide range of services to hundreds of thousands of low-income women and their families we serve. And of course, none of this would have been possible without our partners including the Alliance for Global Good, Anglo American Group Foundation, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Vitol.
- What were the biggest hurdles you have overcome in developing your service?
One hurdle we had to overcome and continue to face is understanding how to integrate and maximize synergies between two very different product lines of microfinance and health to create one cohesive customer experience. Another challenge of our work has been learning how to drive change and innovate within a large, multi-country operation.
- What barriers still exist?
We think there are still many opportunities to leverage our expertise in financial services and healthcare delivery to develop innovative products to provide nuanced, mixed financing models, which support our clients across the continuum of care. For example, we have been piloting a new cancer insurance product to assist women who we have been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer to access appropriate, high quality treatment. We are also exploring options to provide loans for women to purchase individual health services at our clinics, such as sonograms and dental fillings. We believe that these innovations are only the tip of the iceberg and that through experimenting with a mix of insurance, subscription plans, loans, and savings paired with direct delivery of healthcare services and strong referral networks, we could provide holistic solutions to low-income clients to ensure that they are able to access appropriate, affordable care across the continuum of care in a way that has not truly been accomplished before.
- What, in your opinion, is the single most important factor in breaking down these barriers?
Smart risk-taking. We are not a small start-up, so at times it can be difficult to innovate, especially in fields that are not wholly understood or tested by the industry. It is our responsibility though, as an organization that has a growing amount of experience in this area, to continue seeking new approaches to breaking down these barriers for our clients.
- What do you think are the factors that have allowed you to successfully develop your services? In other words, why now?
A strong organization-wide commitment to our mission, the international urgency of tackling chronic disease and enough experience under our belt have all been pivotal to our tackling some of the most challenging issues in global healthcare today.