Health Partners International of Canada (HPIC)

There is no such thing as too much humanitarian generosity and helpfulness toward people in need, whether it’s providing food, shelter, medicine, education or other essential staples of life that so many of us often take for granted. Organizations and individuals who do provide assistance to the less fortunate in times of need are truly the beacons for hope and goodwill to all mankind.

Here in Canada there are many incredible charities doing a multitude of excellent work through various programs and projects, with some focused within our borders and others on a global scale. One of those international charitable organizations that has been improving the lives of the less fortunate is Health Partners International of Canada (HPIC).

The mission of HPIC is to increase access to medicine and improve health in vulnerable communities around the world by working with partner agencies to provide strategic, sustainable solutions that help communities transform themselves, creating hope and lasting, positive change.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with HPIC’s new President and CEO Marcelle McPhaden from HPIC’s head office in Montreal about her organization’s efforts to improve healthcare in many of the world’s most impoverished regions.

HPIC was initiated 30 years ago by a handful of advocates, including political actors as well as pharmaceutical representatives, interested in improving access to medicine in the developing world. These champions came together believing they had a unique opportunity to provide donated medicines from Canada to communities in need that would otherwise not have access.

The organization was launched from humble beginnings with one individual and a laptop. Now, three decades later, a dedicated staff of 15 employees along with hundreds of volunteers and partners deliver $25 million worth of medicine to more than 40 countries each year.

Starting her career as a physiotherapist and as a hospital manager, McPhaden says her career has always focused on “healthcare quality improvement and improving health and life for all.”

McPhaden noted that finding herself in San Diego for a period of time, she worked for a startup pharmaceutical company performing various roles, “everything from patent and container research, to early stage lab experimentation. It was a wonderful experience,” recalls McPhaden adding, “ I eventually returned to health administration when my husband’s job relocated us back to Canada. New to Montreal, she once again looked around to see how she could contribute to the healthcare landscape in a meaningful way. Upon hearing of Health Partners International of Canada she recalls, “for me it blended health, pharma, motivation and mission.”

So, when the devastating tsunami hit Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, McPhaden reached out to HPIC to offer assistance. At that point, the organization was overwhelmed with pharmaceutical donations and quickly brought her in to keep track of the details in order to optimize all of the goodwill and generosity coming in.

“I joined the organization as a volunteer because there was a very specific need,” explains McPhaden. “I soon found myself working full-time interacting with the healthcare companies for donations of product.”

McPhaden loved the work and never thought about leaving, but charities can be a precarious endeavour, and as such with the organization struggling with payroll she left in 2009 and began an eight-year journey lending her expertise in healthcare quality improvement, including five years with the international division of Accreditation Canada.

“That job brought me to some places of affluence and other places of poverty. I then worked with the Canadian Medical Association, really looking at the training and development of a variety of different healthcare disciplines,” she says.

“Although I was sad to leave HPIC in 2009, the opportunities that came to me in those intervening years have enriched my abilities to lead HPIC now and into the future,” emphasizes McPhaden.

Upon returning to HPIC in 2017 McPhaden assumed an increasing number of responsibilities, most recently as the Senior Director, Healthcare Relations and Programs. In this role she spearheaded the formulation of HPIC’s 2019-2021 strategic plan, securing a historic financial donation to initiate implementation of the plan and built strong relationships with external stakeholders, as well as the HPIC Board of Directors, staff and volunteers. Now as President and CEO, McPhaden is leading the way in implementing the plan, developing existing and new partnerships to build on HPIC’s strengths to create new opportunities.

International Aid

Just prior to speaking with McPhaden she had been on a field visit to Kenya at the beginning of December. HPIC has had a longstanding project in association with the Anglican Development Services -Kenya, which has a lot of hospitals and rural health dispensaries that provide care to those in need at the lowest income levels in the East African country. A significant number of poverty-stricken people are in the big city of Nairobi.

McPhaden’s itinerary included a stop at a clinic in the Kibera slum – which is the largest urban slum in Africa – where an incredible amount of passionate work is being undertaken to provide care to destitute people in the local community.

“We visited rural dispensaries most often in a Jeep bouncing along uneven dirt roads. It was also rainy season so there was some flooding to deal with in certain jurisdictions as well,” remarks McPhaden.

Although the resources are somewhat limited, the passion of the healthcare workers to provide care for the men, women and children is unlimited and most admirable. And there on the otherwise largely barren shelves are boxes of top quality Canadian medicine. McPhaden says the local people frequently report that “Canadian medicine really works.”

It should come as no surprise that the key prevailing challenge to providing better healthcare in the Global South comes down to financial resources. The greater the financial investment the more resources that can be made available, including: medicines, healthcare equipment and everyday consumables such as wound-care materials, sutures and gloves.

“In some of the clinics we visited, sterilization units for small equipment used for wound care or for child birth was not functional,” notes McPhaden.

In HPIC’s line of work, increasing access to medicine around the world faces the challenge of arduous customs regulations and import processes. It can be an exceptionally complex procedure to move medicines across multiple international borders while also ensuring the products are properly utilized.

“We’re very careful to comply with international regulations and procedures to ensure optimal outcomes and impact in our work,” confirms McPhaden.

HPIC respects and follows the World Health Organization guidelines for good drug donations. This has been an integral aspect of HPIC’s work – understanding, preparing and ensuring documents are in place in a timely and efficient manner. Nonetheless, McPhaden explains that “while HPIC follows best practices and expiry dating regulations, frequently set at 12 months until expiry upon arrival into country, we are also always looking for opportunities to place shorter dated product when countries will allow and can confirm use within the allotted timeframe. This most frequently occurs during emergencies.”

“Without all the careful and complex investment in our work we wouldn’t have been entrusted with all of this amazing medicine from Canadian companies,” states McPhaden.

A notable project for HPIC in 2019 was dealing with the aftermath of the terrible floods that hit Kerala, India.

“Whenever there is an emergency people will contact us, including our pharmaceutical donors. Donors rely on HPIC to determine the partners and products that will be required to execute a response from Canada,” explains McPhaden.

HPIC will examine partner needs lists and country formularies to ascertain what needed and what can be procured and provided from Canada.

“In Kerala we didn’t have any active partners,” reflects McPhaden. “However, we had an employee with family roots in the region and got on the phone and began talking directly with the state ministry of health. We also have links to Rotary Clubs and knew of a local chapter that could provide support to us in planning an outreach there.”

While India has significant pharmaceutical production, in this particular instance the supply chain was disrupted and certain communities were in great need. While many NGOs, even some with local offices, were interested in providing aid, it was HPIC that managed to navigate and deliver the required medicine to those communities.

HPIC has an expansive breadth of partners from Canadian humanitarian medical mission teams and many non-government organizations that have field projects. When emergencies arise, HPIC is positioned to determine the best way to effectively respond.

“We try to accommodate as many partners as we can,” remarks McPhaden. “Initially, HPIC began by working solely through other Canadian organizations and only in the provision of medicines and supplies. However, we’ve branched out to compliment medicine provision with other types of healthcare quality improvement programming. This includes healthcare training, pharmaceutical management and provision of a variety of resources at the local level. We have also developed more direct linkages with international partners and HPIC managed field projects. We always try to honour our longstanding relationships and Canadian humanitarian medical teams that are travelling on a regular basis, while we simultaneously look to increase our value and impact.”

Health and Hope Day

In this day and age, a multi-pronged approach is needed to create awareness and gain support for the importance of HPIC. The organization believes there is an opportunity for everybody in Canada to be involved in some way, whether it’s volunteering, through a corporate sponsorship, or an individual making a small contribution. Everybody is invited and more than welcome to participate.

“Every Canadian can be proud of this work,” McPhaden states, recalling that in a small community in Haiti, the Canadian flag is raised when the Canadian medical team makes its annual trip. In another community a radio announcement is made. It sincerely touched McPhaden’s heart when she visited the Mully Children’s Family (MCF) home in Ndalani, Eastern Kenya, and the children’s choir magnificently sang “Oh Canada” to honour their visit and the longstanding medical assistance provided by HPIC and Canadian medical teams.

“One of our thoughts to spread the word, was to utilize social media and have a day that is dedicated to amplifying our message. We’ve looked at different models and determined there would be one day a year when we’d celebrate the great work done through our vast partnerships and share it with others, and that is how Health and Hope Day was born. On June 18, 2020 the third Health and Hope Day will coincide with HPIC’s 30th anniversary,” McPhaden proudly mentions.

A major challenge for HPIC is that the great work being done is most often happening on the other side of the world and so recognition for such incredible efforts can sometimes be overlooked here in this country.

“Thankfully, Canadians are generous and caring. When they see needs around them, they want to help. Many of us are active in our local charities. It’s a wonderful thing and we’d never want to take away from that, (local charities)” notes McPhaden.

Embracing Innovation

As the impact of HPIC’s work is a bit beyond travelling to for the average Canadian, for that reason alone it is more challenging to call Canadians to action and that’s where creativity and ingenuity can make a big difference.

“One of the innovative things we have done is to develop a virtual reality experience,” she reveals. “We sent a film crew with a humanitarian medical team from Canada that has been regularly travelling to a community in Haiti and making a significant impact. The film crew brought their drones and virtual reality cameras and really captured the story in an incredible way. If we can’t bring people to the field, we can bring the field to people.”

HPIC has been delivering that VR experience to many of the healthcare companies that contribute to their mission so that their employees can become more familiar with the work that they are a part of through their work in the industry and in hopes that they will pass on their knowledge of HPIC to others.

“In the public domain we’ve presented HPIC’s VR experience to senators on Parliament Hill and at events attended by MPPs and other public officials. We have a date to show it at Queen’s Park in 2020, so our message is getting out there,” says McPhaden.

From time to time, HPIC has been fortunate to have received Government of Canada funding for targeted and time limited projects. One government-assisted project was in Cuba and another was a significant project in Afghanistan, which involved not only the delivery of medicine but other kinds of capacity-building programs aimed at improving and assisting pharmaceutical management and development in Afghanistan.

“We really do try to share our message with people of influence that can help take our mission further,” notes McPhaden. “We have an impressive and passionate board of directors and they are very helpful in providing wisdom, guidance and contacts.

Established groups such as Innovative Medicines Canada that represents Canada’s innovative medicine or brand companies – research and development companies, the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association and Consumer Health Products Canada have been extremely supportive of HPIC. HPIC shines a light on the positive work that is being conducted by the healthcare and pharmaceutical communities in Canada.

Current Initiatives

In addition to providing life-saving medicine, HPIC is increasingly initiating multi-year sustainable capacity-building programs to enhance other aspects of local healthcare systems.

“It’s not just sending medicine but how it’s handled once it is in these different locations,” adds McPhaden. “It needs to be utilized and stored properly, which is where our pharmaceutical management programs come in. We also need to look at who the local care providers are and hear what their needs are to be able to enhance care in their communities.”

HPIC hears the responses coming from local communities and that is when the organization builds out its offering of resources, tools or education and training. In 2019, HPIC engaged Canadian physicians who volunteered their time to collaborate with local experts to provide accredited training programs to midwives and nurses to help mothers and babies survive childbirth.

“Another example of such programs is HPIC’s creation of mother-child health counselling cards that have a broad array of information to provide to mothers visiting a clinic who are either pregnant or have had children. One side of the card is pictorial and the other side has key messages,” illustrates McPhaden. Similar job aids and handbooks have been made available to various communities.

“We have an ongoing project where we are enabling training and development of community health volunteers. One thing I have learned in resource limited countries is that there is a willingness to be creative, resourceful and collaborative at all levels of the health system – from tertiary care to community care,” notes McPhaden.

In 2020 HPIC is embarking on two interesting projects. One is a prevention and treatment program for residents in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya that is focused on non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular, cardiorespiratory and diabetes. Not only will there be some provision of medicine but there will be health promotion activities provided by community health volunteers.

“We’re also initiating a small pilot project utilizing telemedicine and enabling a small number of community health volunteers to have a suite of basic diagnostic tools including a digital stethoscope that can be used to digitally transmit heart and lung sounds from a patient through a phone app that is privacy secured to a doctor. There would be the ability for the patient and the clinic doctor to have a live consult if urgent or for the doctor to review information at a later time and provide direction,” says McPhaden.

HPIC does so many incredible things above and beyond donations of medicine that are aligned with improving healthcare for communities in need. It’s not about bringing HPIC’s knowledge and expertise from Canada to a needy region, it’s about being partners, learning and discovering best practices together. As the organization continues to expand its worldwide prominence, McPhaden hopes that HPIC will gain greater awareness among the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries and globally minded Canadians.

There have been long-term, faithful donors to HPIC but in order for HPIC to continue its mission of touching over a million lives per year, HPIC needs to replenish and gain greater support for its humanitarian efforts.

“We have a generation that is really globally aware and interested in getting their hands dirty and participating and yet they’ve never heard of HPIC. We would love to have them become aligned with our mission in some shape or form,” says McPhaden.

“We would like to become better known across Canada,” she concludes. “We have an office in Montreal and Oakville but we need to become better known across the country and for people to understand that we are their organization fulfilling a mission on behalf of Canada.”