An official website of the United States government

Complementary care: Going beyond health to prevent illness
December 19, 2017

Medical providers have to look beyond their prescription pads and offices in order to provide quality care to patients.

Ajimegor Ikuenobe, a primary care doctor in Benin City, Nigeria, says she has learned that she needs to be connected with her patients and understand their living situations in order to have a successful practice.

Ikuenobe said she felt that too often doctors were disconnected from their patients, and as a result patients didn’t trust them. As a specialist in early childhood development, Ikuenobe realized she needed to gain the trust of the parents of her patients in order to properly treat problems like malnutrition — and to make sure the families followed her medical advice.

“The day I knew I had to do something about it was when a family came in and their 1-year-old was 2.8 kilograms,” say says, noting that her own son had been 3.6 kilograms when he was born. She had also seen a young toddler in her clinic who was toothless and immobile.

“When I went to their homes, I found out that they were living in a shack — no doors, no windows, no electricity — and it was not just them, but there were hordes of people like that around.”

So she helped launch the Lead Oak Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports young mothers by providing meals, parenting classes and job skills training. She says the work she does through the foundation is a vital part of her medical work to care for the health of children in her community.

Get to the root of the problem

Fatoumatta Kassama is an ophthalmic nurse in The Gambia who practices holistic care, a popular nursing practice that aims to treat the whole person rather than address individual symptoms.

“Get to know the cause, the root of the problem, then you will find the solution,” Kassama says. “If you want to address the complaints that person will keep coming, because there will be complaints every day.”

She discovered this at her eye clinic, where patients would only visit after they began losing their vision, when it was too late for her to save their sight. Rather than wait for patients she couldn’t heal, Kassama began conducting home visits to reach patients before they went blind.

Ikuenobe and Kassama, both YALI Mandela Washington Fellows, are just two of countless health care professionals from across Africa to incorporate complementary care into their regular medical practices. They realize that the root of most health problems grows from the patient’s life circumstances. Like other medical professionals, they depend on community partners to treat these indirect causes as a form of preventative medicine.

“The focus is the child,” Ikuenobe says. “We know that in order for the child to reach their true developmental potential, you cannot just focus on health or nutrition alone. You have to focus on the families to create a great environment where they can blossom.”

She finds that the parents of patients are more open to the information she gives them about their child’s health when she can help identify and resolve obstacles they face in implementing her advice.

“It’s like giving them fish while you are teaching them how to fish,” she says. “I found out that the combination of both works better.”