Storytelling Training Leads Frontline Health Workers to Advocate at the Highest Levels of Governance

Samalie Kitoleko

Samalie Kitoleko, a registered nurse at the Uganda Heart Institute and storytelling trainee. Photo by Malaika Media for IntraHealth International.

The firsthand perspectives of frontline health workers are becoming more influential at the highest levels of policymaking, including last week during the 71st World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland. Dozens of health workers, among the thousands of delegates there, took the stage to share their personal experiences in the global effort toward universal health coverage. 

Over the past two years, IntraHealth International and its partners at the Frontline Health Workers Coalition and Medtronic Foundation have trained 11 health workers from Brazil, India, Ireland, South Africa, Uganda, the United States and Zambia to share their accounts of providing health services to underserved communities. Their descriptions give first-hand context to policymakers worldwide as countries work to address the lack of access to essential health services for noncommunicable diseases and other health issues.

“Since I took the training, I learned that you can come out and share your story with policymakers, and if you insist on it, you can be heard,” says Samalie Kitooleko, a nurse at the Uganda Heart Institute in Kampala, who spoke at high-level events this year and last at the World Health Assembly.

I learned that you can come out and share your story with policymakers, and if you insist on it, you can be heard.

Access to such platforms and audiences are helping the health workers influence policies, expand access to high-quality health services in their communities and raise the profile of frontline health workers’ impact and the structural barriers they face. Some examples of the policy changes these frontline health workers have helped bring about include: 

  • Nurse Samalie Kitooleko successfully advocated for policies that allow all patients—regardless of their ability to pay—to receive care at the Uganda Heart Institute.
  • Shortly after Maria Valenzuela, a community health worker from Arizona, spoke at a congressional briefing on the impact of frontline health workers in 2017, bipartisan House Resolution 342 was introduced in the United States Congress, which recognizes “the essential contributions of frontline health workers to strengthening the United States national security and economic prosperity, sustaining and expanding progress on global health, and saving the lives of millions of women, men, and children around the world.”
  • A health worker storytelling night became a prominent feature for the first time at the 2017 Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health—the preeminent global gathering of health workforce experts and policymakers.

“Last week at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, we saw the faces of policymakers at the highest levels—from ministers to the heads of multilateral agencies—transfixed by the stories of these frontline health workers,” says Pape Gaye, president and CEO of IntraHeath International. “They should be a focal point for policymakers, from the community to the international level. We are proud to help amplify their voices and will keep pushing to ensure they have a platform to tell their stories.”

I joke that my life is divided into two parts: before and after the storytelling training.

Delegates at the World Health Assembly this week heard from program trainees Anne Kinuthia, a nurse in South Sudan; Sunil Kumar, a community health manager from India; and Claire Cahill, a nurse from Ireland, among many other health workers.

“When we as advocates speak to policymakers about the acute necessity of far greater and more strategic investment in the global frontline health workforce, heads often nod but action doesn’t always follow,” says Vince Blaser, director of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition. “But when policymakers are presented with data combined with the human stories that bring home the realities of working on the front lines of care, the onus to act becomes much harder to ignore.”

IntraHealth and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition urge all advocacy and policymaking bodies to build on this momentum and ensure frontline health workers, patients and other community voices are meaningfully included in global health policy forums and conferences. 

“I joke that my life is divided into two parts: before and after the storytelling training,” says Dr. Vania Soares, a community physician in Brazil. “You see that your experience is important and that it can transform other people’s lives.”

Learn more about these health workers and watch videos of them sharing their experiences: