5 Unique Elements Driving Partners In Health's Work

The social justice and global health nonprofit’s mission is both medical and moral

Posted on Jun 8, 2021

5 unique aspects of Partners In Health
As part of all our global work, PIH values accompaniment, partnership, equity, research and advocacy, and "the Five S's": staff, stuff, space, systems, and social support. Graphic by Maggie Zhang / Partners In Health

Partners In Health is not an average NGO. PIH founders established the organization more than 30 years ago based on a simple, yet radical, idea: Health care is a human right. We believe everyone deserves the right to live a healthy life, regardless of income, geography, or identity.

At PIH, our mission is to provide a “preferential option for the poor” in health care, meaning that those most in need are first to receive care and support. In partnership with local and national governments, we bring the benefits of modern medical science to some of the most marginalized communities around the world, while also integrating local, culturally relevant, and traditional forms of care. From Haiti to Rwanda, our global teams do whatever it takes to make our patients well—just as we would do if a member of our own families or we ourselves were ill.

None of this work is simple--but none of it is impossible. And all of it is essential. Here are five elements that make PIH unique:

1. Accompaniment

Accompaniment means being there, together, for as long as it takes. We accompany first and foremost our patients, whom we often refer to as “our bosses.” We believe that any meaningful social progress is only born out of true solidarity and partnership, and so our style of accompaniment is rooted in shared experiences and meant to support whomever needs assistance, for as long as they need it.

At PIH, accompaniment has no time limit. Only by keeping an open commitment to collaboration can we aspire to solve problems caused by centuries of oppression—due to colonialism, the slave trade, and systemic racism—and find the hope needed to overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

When PIH began working in Haiti in the early 1980s, among the first employees hired were accompagnateurs, or community health workers (CHWs) in Haitian Creole. These accompagnateurs put our accompaniment model into action.  Recruited from their communities, they are intimately aware of the challenges their neighbors, friends, and family members face on a daily basis--first-hand experience that helps them connect patients to local clinics and form the bridge often missing to quality health care.

Their work reflects how we accompany all our partners—from leaders of global health organizations and ministers of health, to lab technicians and local clinicians—focused on our overarching goal of achieving a universal right to health care.

TB doctor in Peru shakes hands with a patient
Tuberculosis patient Randy Robles (right) shakes hands with Dr. Epifanio Sánchez in Carabayllo, a district in which PIH works north of Lima, Peru. Elizabeth Vargas, a member of the care team, watches on. Photo by William Castro Rodriguez / Partners In Health

2. Partnership

Since the beginning, PIH leaders knew that real advancement toward a universal right to health would only be possible through strong partnerships. Our goal is not to expand across the globe, but to partner with governments and organizations who invite us to the work. Together, we prove what is possible in resource-poor settings, among the most marginalized communities, and offer it up as a model for replication. Then, we dare the world to look the other way.

We partner with national governments, local districts, the private and public sectors, civil societies, as well as some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, such as Harvard Medical School and Brigham & Women’s Hospital. These partnerships, of public officials and clinicians, scholars and scientists, advocates and community members, are what drive all our work, everywhere.

3. Equity

PIH is a social justice and global health nonprofit, with both elements  intertwined. We see social justice as the continuous push to create a more fair and equitable society, one in which everyone has the right and opportunity to live a life filled with dignity and purpose.

Our social justice work is focused on creating a new universal standard of health care and is anchored in a preferential option for the poor.  We refuse to accept the global health norm, where all that is imagined for those with the least resources or power are the cheapest options. This is a failure of imagination.

We reject that paradigm and propose a different model of care—one rooted in equity. At the clinics and hospitals that we support, care is driven by patients’ needs. And often, that care isn’t solely medical; it includes resources for food, shelter, employment, and transportation to and from health facilities. The entire package of medical care and social support is necessary to care for patients, fix broken health systems, and right historic wrongs. 

a PIH mental health coordinator speaks with a patient in rural Rwanda
Beatha Nyirandagijimana, a mental health research evaluation coordinator with PIH in Rwanda, talks with Sylvestre, a patient, and his mother at Rusasa Health Center. Photo by Cecille Joan Avila / Partners In Health

4. Research + Advocacy

PIH has decades of experience in global health care and deep academic and research partnerships in the United States.

Some of the most brilliant scientific minds in global health work within our ranks. Fordecades, PIH has partnered with world-renowned institutions, such as Harvard University, to deliver groundbreaking research. Our work has informed hundreds of peer-reviewed, scientific papers that in turn form the base of our global advocacy and inspire lasting change.

Some concrete examples:

  • In the 1990s, our community-based treatment of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in Peru proved so effective that the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its global treatment recommendations.
  • Years later, our HIV Equity Initiative helped deliver antiretroviral therapy to patients in Haiti, eventually saving hundreds of lives. Our initiative was so successful that it inspired the Global Fund, PEPFAR, and the WHO to fund the fight against HIV in rich and poor countries, alike.
  • In 2012, our cholera vaccination campaign in Haiti set a precedent for outbreak response and inspired the WHO to create a global stockpile of the oral vaccine, which has since been used to control and prevent outbreaks in Yemen and Sierra Leone.

Ultimately, we measure ourselves not only by how many people we have served directly, and how well, but also by how many people we have served indirectly, through our efforts to change minds, laws, and policies.

5. “The Five S’s”

Around the world, PIH builds up local health systems alongside its partners, strengthening these systems to respond to disasters and meet the daily needs of patients and their families.

We believe all strong health systems must have five essential elements, which we call “the Five S’s.”

PIH's Five S's

  • Staff: Well-trained, qualified staff in sufficient numbers to respond to the need
  • Stuff: Proper and ample medication and supplies
  • Space: Safe, appropriate spaces with reliable electricity and clean water
  • Systems: Universally shared best practices for care delivery and administration
  • Social support: Essential resources to ensure effective care, such as food, transportation, housing, and education

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