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I met Judith in 1998, in Siaya, Kenya. She spoke quietly of the baby girl she had lost to malaria which had infected her child’s brain. Judith later turned her tragedy into resolve to save other mothers and children from a similar fate. She trained to become a community health worker and soon spent hours every day walking dusty roads to diagnose and treat common ailments such as childhood diarrhea and pneumonia. Community health workers like Judith have become a critical part of health care systems in countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

Soon, community health workers will be attending to the sick much closer to home, according to Dan Dixon, Vice President for External Affairs at Seattle’s Swedish Health Services and one of the founders of Global2Local (G2L), a unique initiative affiliated with the Washington Global Health Alliance, which is applying successful global health practices to address health inequities in Washington state. Swedish has dedicated $1 million to the initiative’s launch.

The initiative will begin work in SeaTac/Tukwila, two small cities sandwiched between a megamall and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The area is home to some 40,000 immigrants, who among them speak 70 languages. International Boulevard, its aptly-named thoroughfare, has plenty of convenience stores, but no green groceries or health clinics. Diabetes rates are high among the population, along with other serious health problems.

G2L will be training community health workers—drawing from an educated pool of immigrants, many of whom worked as doctors and nurses in their home countries. G2L will also be opening two video interpretive centers to help overcome language barriers which so often stand in the way of good health. These centers will employ cell phone and real-time video technology to enable foreign-language speaking patients to dial in, and receive real-time translations of their conversations with health care providers.

The innovations keep coming. G2L partners are donating low-cost mobile phones, and the health apps to go with them, including a glucose monitoring system for people with diabetes. Another partner will be working on the economic development front, distributing micro-loans to new businesses, a practice that has been highly successful in supporting economic development of small enterprises in developing countries.

The G2L initiative, founded by Swedish Hospital, the Washington Global Health Alliance, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and HealthPoint could prove a new model for innovation in public health. Its genius is in taking low-cost innovations developed for resource-limited settings overseas, and applying them to under-served communities at home.

Meeting Judith thirteen years ago was an inspiration for me, and I look forward to meeting community health workers right in Seattle’s backyard and sharing their inspirational stories. Future blogs will also explore how Seattle innovations are improving health systems in African countries, and track the routes through which globalization of innovation can improve health for all.

It’s a phenomenon I’m calling GloNovation—the globalization of innovation for social good. But if that term doesn’t quite hit it right, send your ideas. It’s a concept that deserves a name.

Image courtesy of IICD.

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