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Commentary: How We Can Bring Health Care to the World’s Underserved

February 1, 2018, 7:00 PM UTC

A little over a year ago, the two of us met for the first time at the Fortune + TIME Global Forum in Rome. It was there that we, along with other leaders of global businesses and NGOs, committed to Pope Francis that we would contribute toward the ambitious goal of providing modern health care over the next several years to 100 million children in the world’s least developed countries.

The harsh reality is that today more than 3.7 billion people—at least half of the world’s population—lack access to essential health services, in part because they live in rural areas out of reach of health clinics and hospitals. The consequences of this disparity are staggering: An estimated 3.6 million children under the age of five are expected to die in 2030 from causes that can largely be prevented.

Yet providing access to health care in these locations is challenging. These are areas that are often without adequate roads, telecommunications, electricity, or other basic infrastructure, not to mention adequate investment in health workers.

We find this to be unacceptable. Through our work, we have each seen the devastating reality of these statistics in real life, and have each been touched by patients who are struggling with diseases that are easily treatable or preventable. It makes us think of the young girl from Zambia with rheumatic heart disease, a complication of untreated streptococcal sore throat, who sadly died from this illness despite efforts to help her. Unfortunately, poverty and a lack of health care make for a deadly combination that is all too common in far too many places around the world.

Training more community health workers (CHW) is a key piece of solving this incredible challenge. CHW programs are proven to save lives, create jobs, and even protect against the next epidemic. CHWs don’t replace nurses and doctors; rather they extend the reach of the health system to the most remote communities. However, the model for training health workers is antiquated. In many rural and remote regions of the world, some trainees travel for hours by canoe or foot to training sessions, where they are taught with flip charts and markers. This model simply can’t train health workers quickly enough or at the scale required to meet the immense need for health care access around the world.

We now have the opportunity to change the old model of education for CHWs. Leveraging advances in technology, we can start a digital education revolution for CHWs and ensure even the most remote corners of the world have access to health care.

That is why, with $1 million in support from Novartis, Last Mile Health is expanding its Community Health Academy. The academy is the world’s first digital continuing education platform tailored for community health workers and leaders globally. It will offer a blend of global digital online learning resources, including mobile apps for CHWs and a suite of in-person management courses for leaders.

For all of human history, illness has been universal but access to health care has not. We have a chance to strengthen the health of communities in every part of the world—even the most remote. Let’s get started.

Joe Jimenez is the former CEO of Novartis. Raj Panjabi is the co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health.