Raj Panjabi, MD, MPH: Humanity and the 2017 TED Prize
Dr. Rajesh Panjabi shown at a patient follow up visit in Rivercess, Liberia in April 2016
Rajesh Panjabi, MD, MPH, a physician in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Global Equity and a 2011 graduate of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Internal Medicine residency, is this year’s winner of the $1 million TED Prize.
The TED Prize is given annually to a leader who can “spark global change”. Of note, Dr. Panjabi was also named as one of Fortune magazine’s “50 greatest leaders” in 2017 and was on Time’s 2016 list of “100 Most Influential People”, among numerous other accolades.
Dr. Panjabi’s awards recognize the impact of his organization, Last Mile Health, in serving as a global model for bringing health care to patients in the most remote parts of the world through professionalized community health workers. Through the organization’s work responding to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, they demonstrated the power of community health workers to combat epidemics where they start in remote communities before they become global. Dr. Panjabi’s bond to Liberia formed early: he was born in Liberia and lived there until the age of 9, when his family fled civil war.
Dr. Panjabi describes himself as “overjoyed” on learning of his acceptance at MGH. “[The] humanity at MGH and at Brigham and at Partners” is why Dr. Panjabi chose MGH for his residency and continues his global health work at BWH. The hospitals’ “excellence and technical ability” initially attracted Dr. Panjabi, but the commitment to providing excellent care to every patient is what convinced him to come, and to stay. An added incentive was that two of his organization’s advisors, Paul Farmer, MD, and Joia Mukherjee, MD, were – and still are – at Partners.
Dr. Panjabi completed his residency without taking time off from either the demanding requirements of his residency or his responsibilities as CEO of Last Mile Health. He recalls the period as being physically demanding, recalling one time when he finished a 30-hour shift and then had to stay awake for phone calls with colleagues in Liberia.
Dr. Panjabi was one of the early recipients of a travel grant from the Partners GME Center of Expertise (COE) in Global and Humanitarian Health, initiated in 2009. Since its inception, the COE has provided over 283 travel grants to residents and fellows for projects in 34 countries.
Dr. Panjabi describes getting the COE travel grant as a “catalytic point”. He recalls having had a “real fear” that Last Mile Health would be looked at by academic health care institutions merely as non-profit work and that the work he wanted to do would be “difficult to integrate with academia”. Getting the COE grant encouraged him that Last Mile Health was being taken seriously for the work it does. Global work, he said, is often framed as community service or charity work, without full recognition of its rigor and importance. He described the case of a young nurse who worked with Ebola patients, contracted Ebola--and survived, but then died in childbirth because rudimentary healthcare wasn’t available to her. His mission in Liberia has been to repair a health care system devastated by civil war to build an everyday system that can withstand the shocks of an epidemic. Doing so will not only help people in that region of the world, but everywhere: where basic healthcare is available, outbreaks like Ebola can be identified and slowed or stopped before they become worldwide epidemics.
Last Mile Health trains community health workers to provide health care locally, so that ill patients will not have to travel hours or days to a health care facility. This parallels a variety of efforts across the globe to “bring healthcare closer to the doorstep” whether by using mobile vans to bring services to residents in urban areas or training community health workers in rural villages of developing nations.
Dr. Panjabi encourages residents to “continue to do what you love and what brought you to medicine in the first place”. He acknowledges that this is sometimes at odds with the rigorous demands of medicine, but notes that medical professionals should not forget what drew them to medicine and find a way to stay connected to their passions.
One of the ways in which Dr. Panjabi does this is by working directly with patients in Liberia one month each year. He reflects that regardless of the type of medicine one is interested in, learning at the bedside is very important. “As one becomes more and more capable in medicine” there is a tendency to get less time with patients, but he believes the bedside experience is crucial and “helps guide research and advocacy.”
When asked about the advice he would give to residents, Dr. Panjabi noted that residents and faculty members at teaching hospitals are interdependent, and trainees should not hesitate to reach out to faculty for mentorship. He enjoys working with current residents and fellows and welcomes the opportunity to work with others.
On April 25, Dr. Panjabi will announce how he will use the $1 million prize to expand on his effort to create global change.
For more information about the TED Prize and where to watch or listen to the broadcast, see http://blog.ted.com/announcing-2017-ted-prize-winner-raj-panjabi/.
For more information about Last Mile Health, go to http://lastmilehealth.org/.
Page was created on 4/18/17.