Birzeit University faculty expand healthcare, health literacy locally and regionally with unique initiatives

Every night from her home office, Dr. Weeam Hammoudeh and her team, comprising Rula Ghandour and Reem Ladadwa, log into the Sabaya Health platform to check on the progress of the participants, adolescent girls from refugee camps in Palestine and Jordan. 

The games and video discussions, she notes, have been particularly popular with the girls who are taking part in the pilot phase of the platform, the first-ever Arabic-language program specifically designed to meet their health needs. She makes a note to add new interactive content and turns her attention to the planned mobile application for the platform. 

Sabaya Health, launched by Birzeit University’s Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH), is an interactive online platform that seeks to improve the health and healthcare access of adolescent girls in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and Jordan. It represents one of the many initiatives at Birzeit University to serve the healthcare needs of local and regional communities.

In honor of the 2021 World Health Day, we’re highlighting the efforts by Birzeit University’s academics, researchers, and students to expand access to healthcare and health literacy in Palestine and the region, beginning with the projects spearheaded by the ICPH. 

Birzeit University’s ICPH is one of the foremost Palestinian institutions working to develop independent and informed health policies, plans, and programs that benefit not only the local community, but also the wider Arab region. 

Stemming from its focus on the health and well-being of the community, the ICPH began several research projects dedicated to examining the health and socio-economic ramifications of COVID-19 on Palestinians since the pandemic began in late 2019.

Indeed, in one of these projects, researchers from the institute are carrying out qualitative research to understand and highlight the experiences of people during the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of broader structural uncertainty. The study focuses on how individuals experience uncertainty during the pandemic and how this has affected their everyday lives. 

Another area that ICPH researchers are focusing on is the effect of the pandemic on refugees in the West Bank. As part of an ongoing research project, ICPH staff are exploring how the COVID-19 crisis has affected internally displaced individuals and how their needs are met by the healthcare system. The researchers, together with public health experts and officials, will incorporate data from the research project into the health system to strengthen its response to the needs of the Palestinian public.

Students enrolled in the institute’s Master’s Program in Public Health have also played an important part in producing knowledge on the effects of COVID-19 on the Palestinian community, carrying out a study on the mental health of university students during the pandemic, later published in the “Annals of Global Health” journal, as well as a study on the effects of the lockdown on Palestinian women.

Additionally, academics and researchers at the institute have published extensively on COVID-19 in Palestine and the region, including in the prestigious medical and public health journal “The Lancet.” These publications include:

•       COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians

•       Tracking COVID-19 responsibly

•       Social and political determinants of health in the occupied Palestine territory (oPt) during the COVID-19 pandemic: who is responsible?

•       Roundtable: On mental health amid Covid-19

•       What is the preparedness and capacity of palliative care services in Middle-Eastern and North African countries to respond to COVID-19? A rapid survey

Another pioneer in expanding health literacy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Faculty of Pharmacy, Nursing and Health Professions, where the dean, Dr. Sahar Hassan, has been organizing recurrent webinars dedicated to raising awareness of the pandemic and the global efforts to combat its spread.

The series highlights various public health issues and concerns related to COVID-19 and features outside experts as well as professors and instructors from the faculty’s Audiology and Speech Therapy, Nutrition and Dietetics, Pharmacy, and Nursing departments. 

As of April 2021, the faculty has organized webinars on the role of the body’s immune system in countering and protecting against the coronavirus; the Palestinian health sector’s readiness to combat the coronavirus pandemic; and the types of COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use and the differences between them. 

These are just a few examples of the efforts led by Birzeit University’s various faculties, institutes, and centers to facilitate access to healthcare and advance health literacy among communities in Palestine and the region. The university has nine faculties and eleven institutes and centers, all dedicated to advancing science and humanities to benefit communities near and far.