“A widow told me, after consulting for her whopping cough that what we are doing is beyond making sure she gets well. But it is making sure that her children still has a mother. These are the types of stories that gets me going.” Junelyn Cervera of Salngan said of her role as a Telehealth Coordinator for the Atipan Project, a digital health program in currently operating 10 underserved vulnerable indigenous and rural low-income communities in the Guimaras and Panay Islands of Western Visayas.
Junelyn is one of the telehealth coordinators we interviewed for a project under our Field Work Instruction Program, in partnership with Atipan. As a graduate student who rely on technology for information and connection, I can sometimes take the technology for granted. I would use it for a lot of things. The role of technology and cellular signals being so embedded in my life, I would get a slight annoyance when the movie I am streaming would load slow. Sometimes, in my annoyance I would shift from my mobile data to the 5G WiFi we have at home—the availability of tech infrastructure being one of the many privileges I have because I live in a city center.
But for Junelyn, and the health coordinators of the Atipan Project, they look at these tablets and cellular signals as something lifesaving. The role of the health coordinators of the Atipan Project would be to bring health services to the underserved communities in the Guimaras-Panay Islands. They would serve as the bridge between the clients and doctors by carrying tablets that would serve as the conduit for consultation for the communities. The model require that they depend on the communication technology infrastructure of the region—already very challenging considering that the communities they serve in are remote and geographically isolated and cellular signal can be weak.
The onset of digital technologies has changed the way people communicate, learn, transact, gather, and share information, among others. It has made irreversible improvements in many areas of our daily lives. With COVID-19, the impact of the digital area on the economic and social lives of women became more apparent. Making the Atipan Project a timely one: not just in ensuring that the communities with which they operate are provided with telehealth services—very crucial in the new normal, but also in making sure that these underserved communities are not left behind.
The Atipan Project is about technology, data, and infrastructure. Much of the investment for the program is that for tools that Healthcare Coordinators will need to ensure that the underserved communities have access to healthcare consultations with doctors through telehealth consultation services. Poor access to electricity and cellular connections remains a pressing challenge in the operation of the project. However, the heart and soul of the project is its coordinators and the communities with which they serve in.
I live 400 meters away from the nearest hospital. I own a small clinic located in a busy street. Health is something as close to me as my arm’s length. I can easily ask any of the doctors I am related to about my medical concerns. But I know that this is not the case for many of the communities in Atipan. For many of the communities, as Junelyn and the other healthcare coordinators would describe, medical information and consultations remain distant: not only because of their location and the lack of available infrastructure but also because the people in the community are not used to health-seeking.
“Mahirap tumawid sa Ilog. Minsan, lalo na kung tag-ulan mas mahirap kasi nawawala iyong ibang mga tulay. Pero tatawid pa rin. Kasi kailangan iyon ng komunidad.” (It’s hard to cross rivers. Especially when it rains when bridges get partly submerged in floodwater. But we find ways to cross because the communities need the project.) Junelyn would add. In some of these zoom consultations with the coordinators, they would drop in and out of the phone calls, getting cut mid calls because the internet signal is so weak. But they would come back to these calls, making sure they finish these zoom meetings—a testament to their dedication to the project. One would think that really bad signals would deter these coordinators from keeping on connecting to ensure the phone calls or consultations would finish. But they keep at it. They would make sure to finish the zoom phone calls for our field work project. Like a metaphor for crossing difficult rivers, the coordinators would persevere despite the weak technology in the region just to ensure the service gets known and communicated to as wide as an audience as possible.
Which is why I feel a sense of awe and wide-eyed appreciation at what the Healthcare Coordinators are doing. Despite the geographical and technological challenges, they would follow through with their commitment to ensure that they bring medical consultation close to those in their communities. The core of the story of the Atipan project is the dedication of these volunteer coordinators who would cross flood and high water to make sure that the service is made available to the underserved.
For many of these coordinators, the job is not just about making sure a tablet is positioned in front of a client to make sure they can assist them in consultation. For many of these coordinators, this is not a job but a service to a community that values how one person is a part of a whole. The healthcare coordinators understand that a widow is also the only parent to her children, and her loss in the lives in her children would mean they would be orphaned. For the healthcare coordinators, these underserved individuals are not just data that needs a screen, these are members of a community--their community—someone’s mother, someone’s child, someone’s partner, someone who someone cares for.
Atipan comes from the word to take care of. And this is exactly what the coordinators are doing for their community.
Diana Kathrina Leomo, graduate student from the Women and Development Studies program, College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines Diliman.