Healthcare Pioneer, Dr Vera Cordeiro
As a hospital GP serving some of Brazil’s poorest people, Dr Vera Cordeiro founded the organisation now known as Brazil Child Health. Treating thousands of patients each year, Cordeiro noticed that many of them were being readmitted with the same illnesses. Her solution was bold and was to revolutionize the Brazilian healthcare system.
A holistic five-point program of healthcare
Cordeiro knew that the solution to the chronic suffering of her patients was to create a system that went beyond prescribing a particular treatment for a specific illness but also to address the individual’s overall wellbeing: their health, their employment status and their family needs.
Cordeiro sought to address not only the immediate medical needs of her patients but also the conditions that may have contributed to their ailments in the first place. Her solution was a five-step program of health, housing, income, education and citizenship.
Each patient that comes into contact with the Brazil Child Health receives help in the following areas.
- Health – provision of food and nutritional advice, medicines, medical equipment and social services;
- Income – training and assistance to take professional courses to learn employable skills; begin a new profession; start a business or open a store. The organisation has helped thousands of families generate new forms of income;
- Education – assistance to retrain and go back to work; to find a role for themselves in their community and to receive social and moral support from volunteers;
- Housing – putting families in touch with volunteers and construction workers to rebuild and repair homes;
- Citizenship – offering legal advice and assistance to protect the rights of patients in all areas of life. Bringing together diverse groups and citizens together to foster social inclusion and cohesion.
Perseverance in the face of setbacks
It’s OK to think big, but you must walk slowly, one step at a time, in order to move forward every day, because you must pass through the pains and obstacles and failures.
Cordeiro recalls the early days of trying to get the service off the ground and the barrage of naysayers she had to overcome. Many critics said her approach would not work – it was too vast and unfocused.
She recalls sending out 117 letters applying for financial support and grants from all over the world – to be rejected by every single one. But whilst she was thinking big, she acted small: helping one patient, one family at a time. Each day, her organisation did the work she believed in. Despite the limited budget and disappointment, Cordeiro was determined to create a workable model for comprehensive healthcare that could be adopted by every hospital in the region.
The turning point: social proof
The breakthrough for Brazil Child Health came when the prestigious social enterprise network, Ashoka recognised the important work Cordeiro and her team were doing. Ashoka’s founder Bill Drayton put Cordeiro in contact with his old management consultancy firm, McKinsey & Co who donated 5,000 pro-bono hours to conduct detailed statistical analysis of the program’s effectiveness and impact. The effectiveness of Cordeiro’s approach began to attract attention, support from the medical community and corporate donations.
The organisation demonstrated great acumen and leveraged their new-found publicity by marketing, scaling its services and highlighting the financial savings of the program that produced a 63% reduction in hospital re-admissions. Government began to take notice.
Cordeiro continues to deliver her original vision of treating someone as a whole person. Such has been the success of the program that the Brazilian government has sought to integrate it into its future healthcare plans. Foreign governments have also approached the organisation to learn about the holistic approach to patient care.
Transforming thousands of lives
From its modest beginnings in a stable 25 years ago, Brazil Child Health has grown into an impressive network of specialists: physicians, surgeons, psychologists, social workers, teachers, builders, family planning services, lawyers, volunteers and community leaders to deliver each component of the program. The result is tens of thousands of families freed from the vicious cycle of poverty, illness and social exclusion.
- “I saw my home country as two separate worlds. One world was the side that could work, eat, communicate and live properly; the other could not even do simple things like eat and walk”.
- “At home, I was a part of the world that had many material things and nice vacations. As a doctor… I was part of the other world… I saw kids dying not only within their bodies, but also within their minds.”
- “To raise money, I started raffling things from my home. I sold things that were just “pleasures”, everything from my own children’s clothes that they didn’t really need to pieces of furniture and decorations that my husband and I had collected over the years”.
- “This is a part of the process of succeeding: to overcome challenges to find truth in your vision and your ability to achieve what you set out to do before you learn how hard it might be.”