KATHMANDU, Nepal — In 2004, Dr. Robin Basnet was the first medical doctor to be stationed at a remote health care center in the Solukhumbu district of Nepal where Mt. Everest stands tall.
A civil war was still raging across the country as Basnet arrived by foot in a community where the only source of communication was a single solar telephone line.
“When I first arrived, I was taken as an alien by the community. I tried to teach them the importance of modern medicine, but they didn’t believe in me,” said Basnet, who is now chief urosurgeon consultant for the Nepal government.
“While I was only seeing a few patients per day at the health center, the local faith healers would be busy all day. After trying for a few months in vain, I learned I would not be able to change society and their beliefs.”
COVID-19 and the limits of modern medicine
Fast-forward to 2020 and the world is grappling with a pandemic that has infected more than 42 million and killed over 1 million. As communities try their best to protect themselves from the virus and scientists scramble to develop a vaccine, poignant questions have been raised about how medically trained health care workers can better work with traditional healers, and how alternative knowledge and practices can be incorporated into the mainstream system.
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Can traditional healers and health care workers come together to help limit the spread of COVID-19? More broadly, how can they work together to deliver modern public health interventions that respect culture, beliefs, and traditions? How can communities’ trust in traditional healers be leveraged to tackle other pressing public health problems?
Basnet knew that if he was going to bring modern medicine to the community he would have to work with the faith healers themselves. He needed to gain their trust and respect and, in doing so, the community’s. He explained to the faith healers he was not there to steal their bread and butter nor was he there to quell their important work; rather, he wanted them to all work together with the same goal in mind: to improve people’s health.
“I somehow convinced them to carry on with their practice, but along with that, that they could help distribute oral rehydration solution, or ORS, to patients with diarrhea, deworm the children, help with immunization programs and inform pregnant women to visit the health center for antenatal check-ups,” he said. “Luckily I got support from them and slowly started getting patients to the health center.”
“While I was only seeing a few patients per day at the health center, the local faith healers would be busy all day.