Belinda Lawton photo by Sarah Geddes.

Silent saviours

28 August 2013

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Belinda Lawton is a PhD candidate at Crawford School of Public Policy. Belinda is a communications specialist who has worked with several health-related NGOs in Timor-Leste, Bangladesh and Thailand.

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Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist Catherine Hamlin is legendary in the health care sector for providing free fistula repair surgery to poor women suffering from childbirth injuries.

She and her team at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, Ethiopia, have received numerous awards, including accolades from the Global Health Council and the United Nations agency UNFPA.

But what about others who pour their energy and passion into hospitals and clinics in developing countries around the world, some of them for free, without recognition by anyone in ‘officialdom.’

Crawford School of Public Policy PhD scholar Belinda Lawton asked that very question while presenting a three minute version of her thesis topic, Silent Saviours earlier this month.

The reality, she says, is that most of the work done by non-government, not-for profit hospitals and clinics that provide services to the poor is invisible.

“The World Health Organization doesn’t have a list of these organisations,” she said.

“Most governments don’t even have a list of the ones operating in their country.

“They operate on the smell of an oily rag. They get no real government funding.”

Focusing on Asia, Thompson has made it her mission to compile her own list of such facilities, noting their location, the people who devote their time to them, the services they provide, and how many patients they treat.

Her research to date has revealed a tapestry of styles and services – some are religious, some are not. Some offer surgical care, while others offer primary treatment.

In Bangladesh, for example, there are the Lifebuoy floating hospitals that travel down the banks of the country’s vast rivers, taking hospital care to people directly.

“They provide a service in a sterile, surgical environment,” Lawton said.

There are also “personality” hospitals, which form around a passionate individual, like that run by Dr Dan Murphy, who operates the Bairo Pite clinic in Timor Leste.

Because many of the facilities that provide not-for-profit services to the poor do not have a presence on the Internet, Thompson is relying on word-of-mouth to track some of them down.

Having just started her PhD, she’s yet to set benchmarks determining which hospitals and clinics she will analyse.

“I might look at how many beds they have, or how many patients they see,” she said.

“I’m not going to be able to put together an exhaustive list of hospitals. I hope others add to it.”

Seeing positive results of her work has always been important to Lawton.

As a reporter for the Manly Daily, on Sydney’s northern beaches, she became aware of cracks in the NSW mental health system while covering various court cases.

“I covered a lot of interesting stories, and learned a lot about the way the NSW health system works,” she said.

She had earlier worked for a former NSW politician.

“While you can make a difference working in politics, you can make a much bigger difference by being a journalist,” she said.

“You manage to get some impact because media coverage often gets people to do things that they would never have done otherwise.

“And that for me was a very powerful motivator for me to go into journalism.”

She later worked with not-for-profit injury prevention experts, The Alliance for Safe Children, in Thailand and Bangladesh, followed by a stint as Director of Corporate Affairs for the Hospital of Hope Timor- Leste.

“I’ve seen how desperately these not-for-profit healthcare services are needed,” she said.

By compiling a comprehensive list of not-for-profit hospitals and large-scale clinics in developing countries, Thompson is hopeful a central agency will in turn act as a coordinating body that will further their capacity.

“It could be someone who is based at the World Health Organization, or someone funded by AusAid, or a US aid group,” she says.

As such, the facilities could cut back on costs.

“If you are only able to order 100 syringes at a time, you are going to be paying the absolute top rate,” she says as an example.

“Whereas if all of these organisations had budgets in place, and were able to do a bulk order of syringes that were distributed amongst them, they would get a lot more bang for their buck.

“I think it would be relatively easy to administer that.”

She would also like to see a comprehensive website containing details about the hospitals and clinics, so that their needs can be better communicated.

This would better enable specialist medical staff interested in working for the facilities to decipher if they can be of real help, Lawton added.

“Literally, these people are saving lives and we need to do all we can to support them.”

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