Sharing knowhow and joining forces towards Health for All
Contribution to the Annual Report 2014 of the MMI Network

Training doctors in Africa: "What are Italian students doing down there?"

Photo: Matteo Fantolini
Photo: Matteo Fantolini

Since 2005, almost 200 Italian medical students decided to take a step outside of their usual habits and traditional curriculum to go see firsthand a real situation of international health cooperation in countries that are often overlooked, where Doctors with Africa CUAMM brings health services every day. It ends up not being such a difficult step from the university classroom to Sub-Saharan Africa's red earth. It takes energy, a desire to learn and to get involved, challenge yourself and explore medicine in a different place.

All the students have their own stories, different motivations that spur them to go, their own personal ways of understanding medicine and the medical profession. They all share open eyes, minds and hearts and the willingness to live in a faraway place for a month, a place that is different, where resources are limited. Here doctors have to know how to go beyond the bounds of their specialization, and patients have an approach to health and illness very different from what we are used to in Europe.

"Since we got to St. Luke hospital, we have been welcomed in a familial embrace by CUAMM's doctors who made sure we were integrated with the local personnel and the surroundings. They shared invaluable practical knowledge with us, and we talked about our life experiences over a nice bunna, the Ethiopian coffee. The first test is an ability to adapt. Limited hygiene and resources might shake you up but won't stop you. Here there's a need for "your medicine", your hands and your eyes. The ears that are needed are ones that can help understand a patient's story. The next step is to refrain from wanting to understand everything and rediscover a deeper meaning of being a doctor today, not just doing medicine." (Giulia, 22, student at the University of Rome, went for a month-long training at the hospital St. Luke Wolisso in Ethiopia)

The experience is both on a professional level and a human one. For ten years, the NGO Doctors with Africa CUAMM has been offering the students of SISM — Italian Medical Students’ Association — the chance to spend a month of their university career in Ethiopia or Tanzania, taking part of the NGO's daily work in the local hospital. Students observe, listen and learn by seeing the everyday life of a context with limited resources where professional doctors provide quality care to the local population. They are immersed in a kind of medicine completely different from the Western standards to which they are accustomed. They find themselves rethinking the basic vocabulary of medicine and experience a different culture to learn to be future doctors who serve patients. They quickly have to put aside the Western mentality of "I'm coming to save you" and replace it with "I'm coming to meet you".

The project was originally called the Wolisso Project because Wolisso, in Ethiopia, was the only destination for the training at first. The field training project remains an invaluable and rare opportunity in European university systems. The project was started by young people for young people, created to give medical and surgery students a chance to encounter the world and broaden their horizons.

Over the years, the project has grown and strengthened through the experience developed. In 2015, there are plans for 48 students to go; four each month, two to Wolisso and two to Tosamaganga, Tanzania, allowing for a growing number of young people to gain experience in health cooperation. Students are involved in community life at CUAMM's guesthouse in addition to working in the hospital. The experience expands beyond a hospital internship to include the full context of international cooperation. Students are engaged both with the work of international cooperation and with African life and situations more broadly speaking.

Not just Africa

However, the Wolisso Project is about more than just the experience in Africa. The project's objectives include more broadly involving medical students and the general population by organizing seminars and conferences on international cooperation and global health. The numerous Italian locations of SISM, 37 throughout Italy, are involved in these projects to reach the widest interested group. One such example is the Frontier Semiotics course that involves seminars held by CUAMM doctors with field experience to give students information about how medicine is practiced in Africa, where there are a shortage, or total lack, of diagnostic tools.

In keeping with the principles of international cooperation and to take advantages of the resources that students have, the Wolisso Project coordinates with CUAMM's local personnel to develop projects that aim to improve delivery of health services to the hospitals that host the students. The Wolisso Project is currently supporting the training of an anesthesiologist in Wolisso, who will be committed by contract to work at St. Luke Catholic Hospital in Wolisso for at least four years after graduation. The project's principle responds to the shortage of anesthesiologists in Wolissa, part of the larger phenomenon of "brain drain" in the medical and healthcare fields in recent years in Africa at large; doctors and healthcare workers who are trained in their own countries often migrate to countries with more favorable contract terms and compensation.

A continuing story

The Wolisso Project has a history that proves its quality and stability with growth steps to confirm it, such as international recognition as the third best project in the world for medical students, received at the Project Presentation of the General Assembly of IFMSA, International Federation of Medical Students' Associations, in Baltimore in 2013.

The idea to further invest in this project is a direct result of this and takes tangible form in the renewal of agreements between SISM and Doctors with Africa CUAMM, with the intent to boost training, expanding the Wolisso Project's range of experience and seeking to involve a growing number of students in this journey that gives such an important gift to their future identity as doctors.

And now for those who would like to follow the stories, feelings and experiences of the SISM students in Africa, you can keep an eye on their new blog to hear about what these Italian students are doing and learning on the other side of the world.

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More information:

 

Contribution by Doctors with Africa CUAMM to the Annual Report 2014 of the MMI Network

 

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