Youth of the Month: Dr Ngwashi Christabel Apholung

Keeping safe has been at the forefront of most persons’ minds in this COVID era. Messages on how best to achieve this are being shared daily by different media outlets and health professionals. In this field of health communication, Dr Ngwashi Christabel is a leading figure through her work with the More Than Just An MD (MT-JAM) health platform. She is our youth of the month and below is the conversation we had with her.

First, tell us a bit about who you are?

I am Ngwashi Christabel, a medical doctor and health communicator combining my clinical and writing skills to provide hospital and community health care as my own contribution towards attaining universal health coverage in Cameroon.

What motivated you to start the MT-JAM Health platform?

 When I started practicing, I realized that a good number of deaths and illnesses could be prevented if only people had the right information. Also, in Cameroon, over 70% of people pay for healthcare expenses from their pockets (which they cannot afford). Preventive health is way cheaper both for the individual and the government. I wanted to help people reduce health costs while teaching them how to stay healthy so they can contribute to society effectively. When people are sick, they do not work, and this reflects on economic growth.

As an aspiring public health manager and heath policy analyst, what do you plan and hope to achieve through the MT-JAM Health platform?

 MT-JAM Health is presently a digital health communication platform which we plan to scale in the days ahead into a telemedicine platform which can help people access health care from anywhere especially for pregnant women and children. As a health policy analyst, I hope to revise the health financing models in Cameroon so that, more people have access to affordable health insurance and reduce the number of out-of-pocket expenditures. A lot of people are pushed into extreme poverty due to heavy hospital bills. In fact, the average Cameroon family is just one chronic disease away from poverty. It is my vision that everyone should have quality health care irrespective of their geographical location or financial ability.

What challenges did you face in the establishment of MT-JAM? 

The main challenge I faced is cultural differences. Some unhealthy practices are regarded as being part of culture making it more difficult to persuade people to change these. For example, this issue of sickle cell children being regarded as witches or this ‘corner-belle’ for which children are being cut and infected. Making them change from practices which have been handed down from generation to generation is difficult. However, with globalization and modern-day technology, people are getting more exposed and shunning such practices. Now people seek advice from professionals, but we still have a long way to go.

Which do you constantly face in running it and how do you overcome these?

 The main challenge I face now is just balancing the MT-JAM health platform and work. There is so much I want to do but I also have a demanding job I cannot leave for now. This is because, I cannot outsource my content creation and most of my content ideas comes from my daily practice. I take the myths and false beliefs people tell me, use it to educate others. To overcome this, I create content in bulk, use scheduling tools, and try overcoming perfectionism because that is one thing which delays me too. I always want my graphics looking pleasing, the information accurate and most convincing.

You won the World Bank 2019 Blog4Dev competition and are a 2020 TechWomen Emerging Leader. How did the exposure and information from these awards inform your design of MT-JAM Health programs and outreach?

 Ohh, the exposure has been massive. In fact, I can say I have blown (hahahahah). The World Bank exposed me to networks of policy makers and put me in rooms wherein very important discussions were going on. I have been able to influence policy and gain insights on how health systems are being financed. Also, the TechWomen fellowship is also exposing me to tech tools which can make my work better and, connected me to women that can make my vision of telemedicine in Cameroon come to life.

What should we look out for from MT-JAM Health in the future?

 You should look out for more engaging content especially as our website is in the works. Also, we are looking at producing books, courses and webinars that can give more detailed information on how to use lifestyle to prevent and treat certain disease conditions. For example, this March, we will be talking all about mental health and self-care in the March Mental Series which will end with a webinar. Also, in mid-term, we hope the telemedicine platform will be up and people can sign-up. There is going to be a lot of innovation on that platform which I cannot reveal now but it will be one which can work despite challenges of internet connection, electricity, or smart phones.

How do you balance your commitments as a physician and lead content creator for MT-JAM Health?

As I said above, what I do is I bulk create content and schedule, then block time after work to respond to questions or comments. Sometimes, on my off-days, I also carry out some projects but there are times, I just take off to rest. As a creative, you need to pause, think, and reconnect most times.

What current plans/projects are you involved in which our readers should be aware of?

 Presently, just preparing the month themes for the next months. For March, we are talking mental health, work wellness and self-care. In April which I term, Acidic April (hahahaha), I plan to launch my book on how to manage heartburn popularly known as ‘gastric’ using lifestyle changes. Also, doing a layout for my second book on women’s health but that is passive for now. Now, I am just focusing on how to help busy entrepreneurs and employees this March balance work, life and wellbeing using self-care techniques and stress management strategies. You should follow my pages on social media to keep up with the March Mental Series.

Tell us about some of the achievements you have had with MT-JAM Health and as an individual which you are most proud of.

 I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to help thousands of people be in better health. I receive lots of messages in my inbox thanking me about one tip or the other which helped people. You will be surprised; some people are just one tip away from recovering from that illness which they have suffered from for years. For example, talking about ‘gastric’, a lot of people think it is cured by constantly taking omeprazole tabs but that is not the case every time. When I shared some tips, someone came to my inbox thanking me for the tips that it relieved her pain. When I get these messages, I am happy because that is what I set out to do.

What are your ambitions?

I hope to become a Minister of Health someday, developing policies which help people access health care from anywhere and at any time, establish a fleet of ambulances that can transport people when referred. It is not funny when you see patients dying because they could not get to the hospital on time. It is hard when children die from malaria because their parents cannot afford paracetamol to keep the temperatures down while they come to the hospital. Also, to establish collaboration with other ministries whose activities have a direct impact on health. In fact, healthcare is one sector which everything has an influence. Waste management has an impact, music/arts/culture, transport, you name it. If I can be in a position to use digital innovation, sustainable financing and inter sectorial collaboration to impact the way healthcare is delivered, then I will be fulfilled.

And most importantly:

What you think our Cameroonian youth need to know/do to be the Better Breed?

We as Cameroonian youth need to start thinking out of the box and stop competing with those whom we should be learning from. We need to stop making excuses for our mediocrity and conform to the speed at which global trends are growing. We must take responsibility for our lives, take up space and accept that work comes before success. We are talented but must find sustainable ways of creating impact with and monetizing our talents. Another important thing is work ethic; we must work on that. I have worked with some creatives whose work ethic was not the best, so we need to improve on that too. Last but not the least, we should quit complaining and make use of the tools we have now especially in the digital space.

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