When Osei Boateng ’18 MHA ’20, a native to a small village in southern Ghana, witnessed the tragic loss of loved ones due to preventable diseases during his childhood, he made a vow to improve the health care system in the country. Now, he is on a mission to deliver essential health care to rural Ghanaians through a pioneering mobile health clinic.
“My grandmother and aunt died because of inefficiencies in the health care system,” Boateng said. “At that very young age, I knew that I wanted to do something to really improve the health care situation in Ghana.”
As the full-time executive director for his nonprofit, OKB Hope Foundation, Boateng has turned his childhood promise to a reality. Starting his mission as an undergraduate at Cornell, he has aided thousands of Ghanaians by providing preventative screenings, vital mental health support and essential medication to rural communities where access to health care remains a significant challenge.
Health Care in Rural Ghana
Rural communities in Ghana often have no access to modern health care facilities, according to the U.S. International Trade Association. Boateng said rural Ghanaians typically must travel hours away to the hospital, and cost concerns and the availability of medical staff deter many from seeking care.
“I lived in a community where access to health care was a challenge. Most of my community members had to travel several miles to the urban areas to get access to health care,” Boateng said. “Even if they get to the hospital, they are not guaranteed that they will get to see a doctor because there is no booking system — you just walk in and hope that you are one of the lucky ones who is able to see a doctor.”
Preventable chronic diseases — like diabetes and high blood pressure — constitute major health problems in rural communities. Chronic non-communicable diseases were Ghana’s leading cause of death in both 2017 and 2018, according to a 2021 research study examining mortality rates in the country between 2014 and 2018. Malaria also remains endemic and perennial throughout Ghana.
Starting the Foundation
Boateng began his studies at Cornell in 2016, intending to complete the pre-med track and become a medical doctor to serve communities in rural Ghana. But a human anatomy and physiology class in Bailey Hall changed his outlook on the health care situation in Ghana and how he could best address its challenges.
“Prof. Kimberly [O’Brien, human nutrition,] was talking about cardiovascular diseases and hypertension and diabetes and went deeper, saying that these diseases have silent symptoms,” Boateng recalled. “If you don’t know about it, you might die. That rang a bell in my head because I grew up where a lot of people will one day be walking fine, and then the next day, people will say that they slept and didn’t wake up again. They usually associate that with natural death because they’ll say, ‘God gave and God has taken.’”
As a fellow in the Cornell Tradition program — an initiative that coordinates the efforts of a select group of undergraduates committed to paid work and service — Boateng received a mini-grant to raise awareness about high blood pressure and diabetes in Ghana and conduct screenings for the diseases in rural communities. The grant allowed him to partner with several physicians and travel across Ghana to educate and screen residents in 2017.
Boateng recalled conducting screenings in a rural community when a woman — who did not realize she had any ailments — had a high blood pressure level of over 200/120 mgHg, well over the normal level of 120/80 mmHg. When Boateng’s team rushed the woman to the hospital, the physician said that had the woman not been brought to the hospital at that time, she would have been at risk of losing her life.
“That story became the turning point for me. There are a lot more people who probably are in the same situation as that woman, who have illnesses when we think they are fine,” Boateng said. “That’s when I started the OKB Hope Foundation, with the goal to create awareness about hypertension and diabetes and give people access to early screenings of these diseases.”
Since his initial health care trip to Ghana, Boateng continued to go back to the country as an undergraduate during the winter and summer breaks to inform about and test for common diseases. In 2018, he was asked to present his project to other Cornell Tradition fellows and was surprised to learn that other students wanted to assist his efforts. Since 2018, he has been taking Cornell students to Ghana to aid his foundation.
“My first trip was with three Cornell students in the winter of 2018. We were able to screen a lot of communities, and then [the students] got the opportunity to shadow physicians to really understand the health care system,” Boateng said. “The same thing happened in 2019… 2020 was my largest group — I had about 10 Cornell students who came with me.”
Layla Profeta ’23 was one student who assisted Boateng in his efforts. Traveling to Ghana in the summer of 2022, Profeta worked in the foundation’s mobile health clinic and in the hospice care unit of a hospital. Originally planning on going to medical school, she said the trip to Ghana changed her outlook on the importance of hospital administrators. With encouragement from Boateng, she decided to pursue a master’s degree in health administration, for which she is currently enrolled at Cornell.
“I was so inspired by the [foundation’s] work in Ghana and the hospital system there,” Profeta said. “Osei is one of the most notable people I’ve ever met. He is very devoted to providing health care wherever he goes. You could just see in his genuineness as a person that he does everything for everyone else, and he puts people forward.”
For Cyntholia Okui ’25, her work with the OKB Hope Foundation in Ghana confirmed her interest in becoming a physician who periodically assists underserved communities in West Africa. As a first-generation American with family members from West Africa, she has heard stories about family members passing from preventable diseases, making the ability to perform early screenings for common diseases especially meaningful.
Boateng is further engaging Cornell students through the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Teams through Cornell’s Emerging Markets Program, which has two opportunities for students to assist the OKB Hope Foundation in Ghana this winter on projects studying community-based health insurance programs and engaging faith healers to promote rural health care.
”What Osei is doing is really special because he’s not just thought about how to fix a problem with an out-of-the-box idea, a very innovative idea, but also created these opportunities for others to learn from him and learn with him,” said Prof. Fridah Mubichi-Kut, applied economics and management, who is the executive director of the SMART program. “This is what I love most about him — he’s not just growing a foundation, he’s thinking about creating internship and learning opportunities for students.”
Expanding the Reach
In 2021, the global pandemic halted the ability for Cornell students to travel to Ghana and assist Boateng. Instead, he traveled alone and took time to listen to the concerns of the rural community members he was screening and educating.
“For the majority of people that we serve, they are the breadwinners, they are self-employed, and so for them, to tell them to go to the hospital is like telling them that they should lose their daily wage, which would affect whoever is dependent on them,” Boateng said. “Once they go to the hospital, it’s not even guaranteed that they can even see a doctor to solve their problem.”
Boateng understood the need for a more comprehensive solution. In February 2022, the OKB Hope Foundation launched its Hope Health Van, a mobile health clinic equipped with point-of-care lab diagnostics testing for various conditions, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, sexually transmitted infections and typhoid fever. The van hosts a physician, a lab technician and an operations director who doubles as the driver.
Each person who visits the Hope Health Van has their vitals checked and undergoes a consultation with the physician. The health care team then conducts any relevant lab work, and if the physician can provide a diagnosis, they provide medication, which is kept on-site in the van.
“It’s pretty much like a one-stop-shop — but we are really laser focused on primary care and preventative care,” Boateng said.
Since the van’s launch, the OKB Hope Foundation has served more than 5,000 underserved and rural Ghanaians across 52 remote communities, according to Boateng. He said the foundation has asked the Ministry of Health in Ghana for a list of communities that do not have any health facilities, and those are the communities they target.
One of those regions was the Mobia Community, a remote farming village in the Ashanti region of Ghana that is three hours away from the nearest major city and lacks medical facilities and electricity, according to Boateng. The community consists mainly of farmers who often cannot travel to the city for fear of losing a day’s wage.
When the OKB Hope Foundation conducted routine malaria testing in the community, Boateng said they discovered shocking results: almost every person they tested was positive for the disease. After uncovering the prevalence of malaria in this region, the foundation distributed mosquito nets and repellent in an attempt to curb the spread.
But Boateng continued to think critically about how to serve more communities in Ghana, especially since limited funding has restricted the foundation to only one operational van. In August 2022, he began an initiative, dubbed “Know Your Health,” to train local community members across four rural communities to serve as health advocates. To date, Boateng said they have trained 20 community members, mainly religious and community leaders who residents trust.
After undergoing an intensive course where the advocates learn about high blood pressure, diabetes and other common illnesses, they are given blood pressure machines and glucometers to perform routine screenings to community members for free. The health advocates provide the foundation with timely data, which allows the medical team to identify individuals who may be at risk for certain diseases.
There remain a host of complex illnesses that physicians in the mobile health clinic cannot address with their current resources. But with a mission of assisting those in need, Boateng said it is important for the foundation to connect people with other health care resources if their needs are complex. He recalled two occasions when children — one diagnosed with hydrocephalus and another with kidney problems — were brought to the van.
Even though the Hope Van physicians could not address these disorders, the OKB Hope Foundation helped arrange prompt care in the city hospital, Boateng said. With the foundation covering most of the transportation, housing accommodations, medication and lab work costs, the children were able to receive the surgeries and care they needed.
“It was a really humbling experience when I went to Ghana this summer and was able to see these children who were once — when they couldn’t have access to health care — were on the verge of losing their lives,” Boateng said. “Now their lives have been transformed by what we are doing. As a foundation, even if we cannot solve the issue, we don’t leave them there, we make sure we make the effort to really help these people get access to the right care.”
Addressing Mental Health
Boateng said that throughout his experiences speaking with patients, it was clear that a common problem they were expressing was not physical but instead psychological. In fact, only about two percent of Ghana’s 2.3 million residents living with mental health conditions receive psychiatric treatment and support from health facilities, according to the World Health Organization.
“As a foundation, we needed to treat individuals holistically — we can’t treat someone physically and leave out the mental health component,” Boateng said.
In October 2022, OKB Hope Foundation launched a mental health initiative called “Wohohiame,” which means “I care for you” in Twi, a local language. The project involves traveling to various high schools around Ghana to increase awareness about mental health conditions and provide resources to students.
The foundation is also working with Cornell Hack4Impact — a club that connects student software developers with nonprofits — to design a platform where people who are experiencing mental health challenges can contact psychiatrists and psychologists to receive care.
The OKB Hope Foundation hosts a Global Healthcare Case Competition annually, with last year’s competition centering around mental health. One of the winning student-generated solutions was to create mental health clubs in high schools to provide a consistent and sustainable way for students in Ghana to access mental health resources, which the foundation is beginning to help implement.
Cornell’s Institute for African Development sponsors the competition, and several of the judges are professors from Cornell, according to Jackie Sayegh, program manager for the Institute.
“In Ghana, mental health is one of the things that people don’t publicly talk about. It is one of the underfunded parts of health care in Ghana,” Boateng said. “We’re working to change that.”
Vision for the Future
Boateng has considerable goals for the future of his foundation, which was once simply a Cornell Tradition’s project.
“Our vision as a foundation is to really make sure that everyone has access to health care, primary health and preventative care, irrespective of socioeconomic background,” Boateng said. “Ghana is a starting point — we are planning to expand to other sub-Saharan African countries to really come and serve the lower-middle class and rural communities.”
To accomplish that goal, however, the foundation needs to increase its funding considerably. Right now, Boateng estimates that he self-funds 70 percent of the foundation’s operations, and a significant portion of the remaining funding comes from a dedicated board member. The organization has received small one-time donations and a restricted grant to train the community health advocates, in addition to medical equipment gifted from MedWish International, a nonprofit that repurposes surplus medical equipment to provide humanitarian aid and assistance from various partnerships at Cornell.
“We haven’t had any source of major funding yet to do the work that we are doing, which has limited us in terms of the impact that we want to make because we see a lot of communities, we see a lot of people in need,” Boateng said. “There’s only so much we can do with the resources that we have.”
But Boateng remains optimistic that more funding is to come. He was recently nominated for a CNN Heroes award — which honors people for extraordinary acts — and hopes it will elevate OKB Foundation’s work and bring increased awareness and donations to the cause. In the coming weeks, CNN will determine the top 10 finalists, after which the public can vote for the finalist whose accomplishments best exemplify a CNN Hero. The winner will be announced in December.
Throughout all of his efforts with the OKB Hope Foundation, multiple Cornell students and faculty who have worked with Boateng said he is selfless and humble in all his pursuits. All who have visited the Hope Health Van in Ghana recall its impact on ordinary rural Ghanaians.
“Sometimes the people are working in the market, and then the sun is really hot or they get sick, and they are afraid to go to the hospital because they’re money involved. But they know that there’s this van, and they can get some medical services there. They can come to this little small office that has a little clinic behind it, and they can rest,” said Sayegh, who visited the van on her Cornell trip to Ghana this past summer. “There are one or two beds — it’s really a shoestring budget, but they’ve done phenomenal work in rural communities.”
#Cornell #Alumnus #Lifesaving #Mission #Bringing #Health #Care #Rural #Ghana #Mobile #Clinic #Time
Image Source : cornellsun.com