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Why We Don't Call Them "Our" Health Workers

When my son was about two years old, I took him for a routine medical checkup. As the medical assistant led us back to an exam room, we passed our pediatrician in the hall. My son pointed and shouted with glee, “That’s my doctor!”

The doctor smiled widely, pointed at him, and said, “And that’s my patient.” 

In the field of global health, it’s common to see organizations running headlines like “Our Health Workers Have Treated 100,000 People with HIV.” They are not referring to the people who provide their staff with health care, or even to the health workers they may employ on a regular basis or dispatch during emergencies for humanitarian assistance. They are referring to the health workers who are reached by their programs in countries around the world.

And there’s nothing wrong with that per se. Possessive adjectives can convey familiarity and pride. Dr. Kimberly Perkins may be Dr. Perkins to her clients, Kimberly to her colleagues, but “my Kimmy” to her mother. The mother uses the possessive “my” because she’s proud of her daughter’s achievements. It’s a term of endearment.

And it’s this latter connotation that organizations convey when they hail the efforts and achievements of “their” health workers. They are proud of the work these health workers do and take their due credit through that powerful word, “our.”

It’s reasonable for organizations working in global health to trumpet their work by associating themselves closely with the people providing the health care that is central to the organizations’ missions to improve health. And yes, the results are shared achievements—goals or milestones that would not have been reached without an NGO’s involvement, resources, country leadership, and, of course, the health workers themselves.

But the health workers we reach may or may not feel that same connection to us. After all, it’s one thing for Dr. Perkins’s mother to call her “my Kimmy.” But it’s odd to be claimed by someone who has never met you.

At IntraHealth, our mission is all about health workers. We collaborate with local partners—ministries of health, private sector facilities, professional councils and associations, to name a few—to help individual countries lead the way in making sure their health workers have everything they need to provide high-quality care. The vast majority of the health workers we reach aren’t on our payroll. And many have never heard of us, because we’re helping their employers or trainers or professional associations build stronger systems to support them—whether it’s through education, quality control, or communication and information systems.

And that’s why we avoid labeling the health workers we support all over the world as “ours.” Because while their successes may mean we’re doing our jobs, the real triumph belongs to the individual countries and communities as they become more and more capable of providing high-quality health care to their people.

And it is to those people whom the health workers really belong.

My son’s exchange with his doctor got right to the heart of the most important possessive relationship that exists between a health worker as a professional and anyone else.

Health workers are tied most closely to the people for whom they provide care and treatment. I have several health workers in my life: my children’s pediatrician, my dentist, the nurse practitioner I see for primary care, and a specialist I see routinely. They are my health workers.

At IntraHealth we are proud of our staff around the world, our programs, and our results. And we are enormously proud of the more than 260,000 health workers we reached last year. But these health workers belong to the countries, communities, and clients they serve, not to us.

IntraHealth knows that health workers count. That’s why we’re celebrating World Health Worker Week, April 5-11, 2015. And we hope you’ll join the conversation. #WHWWeek #HealthWorkersCount