“It’s one of the best community-based health systems in the world,” said Dr. Donald Thea, a Boston University researcher about Pakistan's Lady Health Workers Program. Thea is one of the authors of a recent Lancet study on child pneumonia treatment in Pakistan. He talked with the New York Times about the study.
Published in British medical journal "The Lancet" this month, the study followed 1,857 children who were treated at home with oral amoxicillin for five days and 1,354 children in a control group who were given standard care: one dose of oral cotrimoxazole and instructions to go to the nearest hospital or clinic. The home-treated group had only a 9 percent treatment-failure rate, while the control group children failed to improve 18 percent of the time.
Launched in 1994 by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's government, Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers’ program has trained over 100,000 women to provide community health services in rural areas. The program website introduces it as follows: "This country wide initiative with community participation constitutes the main thrust of the extension of outreach health services to the rural population and urban slum communities through deployment of over 100,000 Lady Health Workers (LHWs) and covers more than 65% of the target population. The Programme contributes directly to MDG goals number 1, 4, 5 & 6 and indirectly to goal number 3 & 7. The National Programme for Family Planning and Primary Health Care is funded by the Government of Pakistan. International partners offer support in selected domains in the form of technical assistance, trainings or emergency relief."
A recent comprehensive review of the program found that as compared to communities not served by the LHWs, the served households were 11% more likely to use modern family planning methods, 13% were more likely to have had a tetanus toxoid vaccination, 15% more were likely to have received a medical check-up within 24 hours of a birth, and 15% more were likely to have immunized children below three years. The improvements in health indicators among the populations covered by the LHWs were not entirely attributable to the program alone; researchers noted that other positive changes such as economic growth, increased provision of health services and better education services helped to enhance the impact. While the program had managed to sustain its impact despite its large expansion, evaluators found that serious weaknesses in the provision of supplies, and equipment and referral services need to be urgently addressed.
The program is now a major employer of women in the non-agricultural formal sector in rural areas, and is being more than doubled in size if budget allocations can be sustained. If universal coverage is achieved, every community in the country will have at least one lady health worker, one working woman and potential leader, who could serve as a catalyst for positive change for women in her community. The health officials say that unlike the mid-1990s when it was difficult to recruit women because of the minimum 8th grade education requirement, now there are large numbers of women who meet the requirement lining up for interviews in spite of low stipend of just Rs. 7000 per month.
Private sector is also helping the LHW program. Mobile communications service provider Mobilink has recently partnered up with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Pakistan's Ministry of Health (MoH) and GSMA Development Fund in an innovative pilot project which offers low cost mobile handsets and shared access to voice (PCOs) to LHWs in remote parts of the country. Mobilink hopes to bridge the communication gap between the LHW and their ability to access emergency health care and to help the worker earn extra income through the Mobilink PCO (Public Call Office).
Due to economic downturn and security challenges in several conflict areas since 2008, Pakistan's chances of achieving its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 appear to be slim. However, significant timely expansion in the LHW program and making it more effective can still help Pakistan get close to its MDGs on important health indicators like the infant mortality rate (IMR) and the maternal mortality rate (MMR).