Dr. Raj Panjabi is the CEO and Co-Founder of Boston- and Liberia-based Last Mile Health, a global health organization that aims to make healthcare more accessible to poor and rural communities around the world. Dr. Panjabi is also an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Physician in the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Originally from Liberia, Dr. Panjabi left the country at age 9, escaping the civil war with his family and relocating in North Carolina. However, Dr. Panjabi never forgot about his home, and after taking time off in his third year of medical school to visit Afghanistan and learn how health systems can be resurrected after war, he eventually transferred this knowledge to develop the framework of what is now Last Mile Health in Liberia.
After finishing medical school he returned to Liberia in 2005. Along with a number of other health workers, Dr. Panjabi recognized the dire need for equitable access to adequate health services in Liberia, especially following more than a decade of civil war, which left only 50 doctors to treat more than 4 million citizens, a problem compounded by the devastation of the country’s health infrastructure.
“Outraged by the lack of support for the public health sector, [Dr.] Panjabi went to Monrovia to meet Liberia’s health ministers and offer his services,” eventually proposing a healthcare program that would deliver the necessary services without doctors, since there was a drastic shortage, and would instead employ community members to provide them. To further meet this need, Dr. Panjabi and his colleagues established Tiyetian Health, meaning “justice in health,” in 2007, which would later became Last Mile Health. As they began developing public health programs, they found that the greatest needs for healthcare to be in Liberia’s “last mile,” the remote villages where poverty and distance hindered people’s access.
Last Mile Health, then still Tiyetian Health, then created the largest rural AIDS clinic in the country, which began treating other chronic illnesses, like depression, which had reached the level of an epidemic as a consequence of Liberia’s civil war, as it expanded in size and expertise. Last Mile Health’s fundamental approach to creating accessible healthcare is to employ local health workers as aforementioned, “giving them the training, equipment, and support they need to perform as health professionals.”
Their model can be adapted to help poor and isolated communities around the world, and played a critical role in mitigating the spread and effects of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Under the leadership of Dr. Panjabi, Last Mile Health trained 1300 community health workers in 2014 and 2015 to aid in containing the epidemic, exhibiting the necessity of investing in human resources and making healthcare more widely and immediately available to everyone.
Bill Clinton has called him a “health care hero” and presented Dr. Panjabi with the “2015 Clinton Global Citizen Award for his part in the massive, coordinated response that brought a halt to this terrible disease.” On his part, Dr. Panjabi says “there’s no exit strategy in Liberia, because [Last Mile] Health is a community-based organization” that will only continue to develop and advance Liberia’s health infrastructure.