Before the Ebola virus ravaged West Africa, killing thousands and leaving entire towns reeling, it started small. The virus wound its way out of a rainforest-adjacent village in Guinea and spread through other rural areas in Liberia and Sierra Leone, going undetected for months. By the time the world realized what was happening, it was too late to stop the virus's spread.
It's hard to find outbreaks if people aren't actively looking for them. And in rural communities across the world, people lack access to healthcare workers who might be able to detect future Ebola outbreaks — or on a more regular basis, help diagnose and treat problems like pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea.
Dr. Raj Panjabi just won the $1 million TED Prize for an idea that could dramatically increase the number of paid community health workers around the world. The prize is given each year at the TED conference in Vancouver, Canada to make the recipient's "big wish" a reality.
Panjabi is a physician at Harvard Medical School and the co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, an organization that expands access to healthcare in remote areas through the hiring of professional community health workers. Panjabi tells Business Insider that he wants to "recruit and train the largest army of community health workers that's ever been known."
He calls his concept the Community Health Academy.
"I want to help countries where they're already working on this to do it at a higher quality and lower cost, to create and curate the best in digital education resources, and to [use] self-learning and online courses to recognize the next outbreak," he says.
All of these steps could reduce unnecessary deaths from treatable diseases and potentially prevent future pandemics, according to Panjabi.
Panjabi grew up in Monrovia, Liberia. He lived what he calls a normal childhood as a math and science geek, until civil war erupted when he was nine years old. The war sent hundreds of thousands of families fleeing, and Panjabi's family ended up moving to North Carolina.
"I wanted to go back to see if I could contribute to serving those we left behind," he says. When Panjabi returned to Liberia in 2005, he discovered the country had the one of the biggest doctor shortages in the world, with just 51 doctors for four million people. The physicians available to see patients were clustered in urban areas, forcing many rural residents to travel over a day to get care.
That's why he started Last Mile Health in 2007 — to bring healthcare to rural areas at a low cost by training paid community health workers to detect and treat diseases. "I believe no one should have to die in the 21st century from lack of access to a doctor or a clinic," he says.
Last Mile Health came into existence at the right time, technologically speaking, since smartphones have made it easier than ever to access medical knowledge without a degree or a lab.
Panjabi gives the example of a child with a shortness of breath. A healthcare worker could check to see if the child has a fever with a digital thermometer, count their breaths using the phone as a smartwatch, and come away knowing whether the child is likely to have pneumonia.
In the next year, Panjabi hopes to use his TED Prize money to set up online training courses for community health workers across the globe. He wants to start in countries with the most dire healthcare shortages (like Liberia).
Online education platform EdX has already committed to working with Last Mile Health on the project. The next step after that is to work with ministries of health in various countries to set up official certifications for trained health workers.
"If we can't understand the value they bring, their labor is undervalued. This would help countries measure training competencies," he says.
Ultimately, Panjabi believes community health work is both an economic and a national security issue. By hiring health workers, governments can create much-needed jobs in rural areas. And as the recent Ebola outbreak revealed, blind spots in rural healthcare lead to diseases that threaten people all over the world.
"You can't bomb Ebola," he says.