Ahmed Saleh and Lama Obeid knew what they were in for even before they left for Tanzania on a WCMC-Q global health program but they were still shocked by the lack of proper health care and limited access to medication, not to mention the constant threat of tuberculosis or malaria infection.
Both quickly learned that life in a largely impoverished developing country in Africa was very different to life in Qatar. But, despite the difference in quality of lifestyle, health care and culture, it was still an exciting learning experience they both enjoyed and they encourage other students to also participate in this rewarding exercise.
The two students from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar returned from a challenging global health education and research program in Tanzania determined to do more for the sick and poor in under-resourced developing nations.
Second-year medical students Ahmed Saleh and Lama Obeid spent eight weeks of their summer break in Mwanza, the second biggest city in Tanzania, where they worked at the Weill Bugando Medical Center. WCMC-Q’s Department of Global and Public Health sponsors two medical students every year during the summer break for a global health education and research experience. This is the third group of WCMC-Q medical students to participate in the program.
Lama said the program offered exciting opportunities for medical students both in health care training and research opportunities as well as personal development. “You are very quickly exposed to a variety of issues and experiences and you are challenged in many ways not only with regard to medicine but also in the way that you live your own life. Most people in Tanzania are not as fortunate as we are and life can be difficult for them,” Lama said.
“I would suggest everyone, not just first-year medical students should make it a point to gain some form of a global health experience. It will completely change their perspective on medicine and how it is practiced. On top of the immense personal development, you will experience, you will also realize that no matter what your goals or interests are, there are lots of opportunities within global health to develop those interests and benefit a lot of people at the same time.”
Ahmed found significant health issues in Tanzania, as in most developing countries. “There is a lot that can be done to enhance the limited medical services that are provided in Tanzania and elsewhere. Health education is a key element. I believe it is our duty as medical professionals to limit the spread of infectious diseases by spreading awareness among the public,” Ahmed said.
“Being in an environment where resources are very limited challenges you in a way by limiting your options. This was a great learning opportunity as it teaches you how to look at things in different ways. You have to come up with a diagnosis based on history and physical examination without having any modern testing modalities and this helps you to move a step higher in rationalizing your decisions and diagnoses,” Ahmed said.
For Lama, it was both an opportunity to observe at close range the treatment and effects of infectious diseases such as malaria and TB and other rare infectious diseases and a chance to experience the African traditions and lifestyle.
“Mostly we attended morning reports and then went around the wards with the doctors and the medical students, checking on patients and discussing their cases. We were exposed to a wide range of procedures, and we learned a lot of medical practice. Often it would be the sort of things you wouldn’t ever get to see because we come from a different part of the world,” Lama said.
“Tropical diseases were very prevalent and mostly in late stage because people cannot afford to visit the hospital often. The patients are manly poor and unable to buy medication. They rely mostly on traditional healers and herbal medicine, which is a big challenge modern medicine faces in such communities. Resources are very limited,” Lama said.
Weill Bugando Medical Centre is a large medical complex with more than 900 beds and four referral hospitals that serve the community needs of people living on the fringes of Lake Victoria and the western regions of Tanzania. It also serves as a consultant and teaching hospital for the region and draws on a catchment area of more than 13 million people.
The hospital is a partnership with the Catholic Church, the Tanzania Government through the Ministry of Health, the Touch Foundation and other partners in making sure that services at BMC are of good quality and that they are training competent health professionals.
Both students agreed that the global health program and the challenges that they faced have had a profound impact on them. “It has definitely helped me a lot in terms of studies,” Lama said. “I learned about diseases that I would probably only be able to read about in text books here and I also got to see the debilitating symptoms of serious infectious diseases first hand. It also highlighted for me the differences between how medicine is practiced in more developed countries as compared to low-resource settings.
“I never imagined diseases like diabetes and hypertension would be as widespread and prevalent as they are in Tanzania. A lot of the patients on the medical wards had very advanced forms of these diseases, mostly due to the lack of primary care,” Lama said.
After his relatively brief global health experience in Tanzania, Ahmed said it has changed his perspectives on how medicine should be practiced and it has sparked a desire to become more involved with global health issues in his future career.
“This experience has definitely taught me a lot and has added to my understanding of many concepts. I have studied about many infectious diseases, but have never seen real cases with such illnesses, and I believe I would never see such cases in Doha or any other developed country. Being in Tanzania has exposed me to such conditions.
“This experience has changed my whole view of medicine and it has even changed my future career plans. Before I went to Tanzania, my main thought was to travel to a new country and to see how things are done in a somewhat different health system. But after being there for just two months, I became very interested in pursuing a career in global health as I realize now that there is a lot of work waiting to be done in developing countries.”
WCMC-Q Associate Dean for Admissions and head of the Global Public Health team Professor Ravi Mamtani said the program provided participants with an excellent foundation in global health treatment and clinical research in a part of the world where health care resources are limited and treatment options are challenging.
“These are experiences that you can only gain when you have been put in those situations. This kind of experience is not a substitute and it confirms that the WCMC-Q Global and Public Health department is succeeding in what it is supposed to do,” Professor Mamtani said
“You will not be able to gain that experience in Tanzania by sitting in Qatar or in the United States. It is an amazing experience for our students even though it is recognized that they are operating with limited resources. It all adds to a great experience in the practice of medicine and it sharpens their clinical skills.”