With cold and flu season upon us, people are flocking to the nearest CVS Pharmacy to get their annual flu shot. But what if it wasn’t that easy? What if all that stood between you and the nearest pharmacy was a 100-kilometer dirt road that may or may not be conducive to a four-wheel drive vehicle (depending on the rain)?
This is the reality for many of the people that live in less-developed countries around the world. But Northwestern University’s Dr. Mark Molitch and his wife Dr. Susan Hou are making regular health care a reality for the people in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and the surrounding villages.
In 2001, Molitch, professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology, metabolism and molecular medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, and Hou, professor of medicine in the division of nephrology and hypertension at Loyola University, founded Centro Medico Humberto Parra, a free clinic about two hours outside of Santa Cruz.
Through a series of unexpected events and new connections, Molitch and Hou were introduced to Douglas Villarroel, A Bolivian endocrinologist. After visiting Bolivia, Hou and Molitch realized the need for increased access to medical and health services in the region and broke ground on the clinic in July 2000 after a wealthy patient of Villarroel donated the land for the facility.
“It took six months to get electricity running from the highway,” Molitch explains. “So, for the first several months, we saw patients by moonlight.”
Since its inception, Molitch estimates that the clinic has seen approximately 32,000 patients. The clinic sends microbuses out to surrounding villages to pick up people. “We could see 20 to 100 patients in a given day,” Molitch says.
Molitch and Hou travel to the clinic three to four times a year, working alongside a Bolivian physician, visiting American physicians and medical residents from Northwestern, Loyola and other international institutions.
Centro Medico provides a great learning experience for students and doctors, providing exposure to ailments that they wouldn’t normally see in the United States. Doctors gain experience with tropical diseases like malaria and Dengue fever, as well as cancers and infections in advanced stages, Molitch says. However, the clinic staff still treats many people for the same ailments that are common in the United States, like diabetes, arthritis and regular aches and pains.
With the lack of normal hospital resources, visiting doctors are also forced to rely on their physical diagnosis skills more.
“You have to listen to the heart and lungs rather than order an echocardiogram,” Molitch says.
The clinic staff also works hard to educate patients on preventative and chronic care habits—specifically, hand washing.
“[Hand washing] has really taken hold,” says Molitch. “There seems to have been a slight culture shift.”
Approximately three to six first-year medical students visit the clinic each year, in addition to four to eight fourth-year students and six to ten medical residents. Whenever doctors and students travel to Bolivia, each person brings a bag full of supplies including gloves, insulin, syringes and medicines.
Along with stocking a basement full of clinic supplies at his own house, Molitch and his wife fund about 75 percent of Centro Medico’s operating costs. Donations account for the rest of the budget.
Ten years after Centro Medico opened its doors, Molitch and Hou are still just as passionate about serving the medical needs of their Bolivian community—or what Molitch calls, their second home.
“We spend a half hour to an hour each day doing something related to the clinic,” Molitch says. “[The clinic] has changed us dramatically.”