Jihwan Jeon: Project Director, Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Project

Jihwan Jeon was selected as one of this year’s British Council Awards Finalists for his work as Project Director in Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in the Philippines. Alumni Voices speaks to him about the changing approach he is leading to neonatal care.

“When I entered my 30s, I thought about how to live a valuable life. I wished to work with the most vulnerable, like refugees or internally displaced persons. I found that the University of York has a specialised academic unit, the ‘Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit’ (PRDU). I applied for the doctoral course and was accepted in 2005. 

My supervisor and the doctoral course provided me with insight into linking academic theory with the real world. Because of the nature of Post-war recovery studies and International Development, it is essential to understand the phenomenon of the world by combining it with the theory.  Moreover, the PRDU was the top-ranked research unit in the world and UK, where I could learn the topics related to conflict, recovery, and the displaced. In that sense, I was lucky to be a part of it. 

As an international student I was lucky to study in York. I was able to focus on my studies in a quiet and comfortable environment at the university. It was a bonus that I could stay safely in York and at a lower living cost compared to a big city like London. I truly enjoyed living in York and on campus. Actually, I miss those days so much.  It was far-fetched and lonely to go through 4 years of Ph.D. courses, including writing up my thesis. Thankfully, I met a number of people who always encouraged me to complete the journey. I also remember the quiet and beautiful scenery at the campus and city centre of York. 

“Everyone is born with different talents, if you can realize what capacity you have.”

I’m currently working as Project Director for the KOICA (The Korean International Cooperation Agency) funded Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health Project in the Eastern Visayas region, Philippines. This project aims to reduce maternal and child mortality through raising community awareness about maternal and child health; enhancing the capacity of the health workers at the community level; supporting the health facilities to provide quality services and promoting advocacy within the community for policy change.

The Eastern Visayas region is the second poorest region in the Philippines. As you may know, the country has a significant socio-economic status of inequality. It could be early to confirm that my work has yet brought change to the community but I believe that my team will make a difference to the community in the region after the five year project is completed, such as reducing maternal and child mortality in the region. I hope that no one is left behind in the quality of health service they receive.

The Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health Project ultimately aims to reduce maternal mortality in the target area. Reducing maternal mortality in the Eastern Visayas region is the project’s eventual goal. 

Maternal mortality is due to three main delays; delay in the decision to seek care; delay in reaching care; delay in adequate care. We are taking measures to address each delay. 

First, the delay in the decision to seek care comes from the poor understanding of the risks and complications of pregnancy among the women and the low status of the women. Thus, we are training more than 2,000 Barangay Health Workers, selected from community members, and let them visit each household to address the specific issues from when the woman is pregnant until the baby reaches two years old. During the visit, the health workers check any danger signs of pregnant women and babies and convey the necessary information through storytelling. The health workers also encourage pregnant women to attend prenatal care more than four times.

To address the delay in reaching care, we provide fully packaged ambulances to health facilities at the community level and work with the local government and the Department of Health to change the relevant policies related to the referral system. Due to the bureaucratic and administrative processes, referral processes are usually significantly delayed in the Philippines. We are working on improving policies and laws for emergency cases to be rapidly referred to higher-level hospitals.

The project also supports a voucher program for community members in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas. The community member in these areas needs to walk for three to six hours to reach the primary health station. Therefore, we are contracting with a local transport driver to support pregnant women or emergency cases who can reach the primary health facilities by ‘habal-habal’ (motorcycle taxi). The local service can significantly reduce the barriers to reach the health service.

Finally, the project supports health workers and primary healthcare facilities to provide quality service to the community. We are either newly constructing or renovating existing health facilities as most were built almost 40 years ago and have been minimally renovated due to the lack of financial resources. We also provide medical equipment, supplies, and medicines to over 50 health facilities in four provinces. Ultimately, we are working for the delivery facility in the target area to be licensed by the Department of Health to guarantee the quality of the service.

“Maternal mortality is due to three main delays; delay in the decision to seek care; delay in reaching care; delay in adequate care. We are taking measures to address each delay.”

Our project is set apart from others as we take a unique approach to maternal, newborn and child health. We have employed a maternal health module called ‘timely targeted counseling’, invented by World Vision. The module encourages and trains community health workers to visit in a timely manner. They visit the households around 12 times from the moment the woman is pregnant until her baby reaches two years old. This is a focused visit. Community health workers will address the specific issues and problems to target not only the woman but also the decision-makers in the household, such as her husband and mother-in-law. 

In addition, since a high percentage of women and community members are not fully literate, community health workers have a conversation through the counseling approach with the storybook and family book – this is far from one-way communication. 

Due to the nature of my work, I spend my time with the most vulnerable communities in the country. It’s very rewarding to contribute to the well-being of children and the community. For example, when I was working in the Karamoja region, Uganda, between 2017 and 2019, my project was to increase the enrolment and retention of children in primary education. While the rate of national enrolment was more than 75% in primary school, it was only between 30-40% in Karamoja. The project team could enroll more than 40,000 children in primary school, and almost 80% were retained. 

When working with around 30 staff, I always think about leadership. I am learning to be a good leader by reading books and reflecting on many cases. There are key lessons I am still learning about leadership. Firstly, ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’ – this is the best golden rule as a leader. Secondly, being a leader is to take responsibility.  I try to listen to others as much as possible before making a decision but it is my full responsibility once it is made—no need to blame others. 

The project size is one of the biggest among those given by the Korean government to NGOs. I feel pressure to manage various issues but thanks to the commitment of 24 Philippine staff and five Korean staff I am working with, the project is being well managed so far since it launched in 2021. 

My simple dream is to work for the well-being of the children and community in the field, as long as my health and conditions allow it. I may retire in around seven years, but I wish to work even after that.  That’s why I continue to study public health and community development to stay up to date with the trends. I am genuinely happy with my work. Everyone is born with different talents, if you can realize what capacity you have.”

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