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Feinberg resident develops program to address women’s health in Ethiopia

Amulya Yalamanchili, Reporter

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A resident at the Feinberg School of Medicine has started a program partnering Northwestern with an Ethiopian medical school to decrease maternal mortality in the country.

Last week, Dr. Gelila Goba, a fourth-year resident at Feinberg, returned to NU after a weeklong trip to Ethiopia, her home country.

Goba’s program, the Mela Project, partners Feinberg with Mekelle University’s obstetrics and gynecology department in Ethiopia. Feinberg has sent three teams of medical faculty, residents and students to Ethiopia since October for the program, which aims to improve medical education and healthcare delivery in the country’s Tigray region.

In Ethiopia, the majority of women deliver at home without a skilled birthing professional, and less than 15 percent deliver at a hospital, according to Dr. Magdy Milad, a Feinberg professor and leader on the Mela Project. The high number of home births, along with a lack of physicians and access to healthcare, contributes to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

“Four years ago, Gelila interviewed for (an obstetrics and gynecology) residency here and expressed a strong drive and passion to develop a sustainable relationship with a medical school in Ethiopia,” Dr. Milad said. “I thought it was a very important opportunity for us to consider, and we recruited her for residency with this partnership in mind.”

Goba is juggling all the expectations of a resident at Feinberg, such as exams and hospital hours, while also supporting a family and developing the Mela Project. After deciding to partner with Mekelle, Goba secured a grant from the Chicago-based nonprofit IDP Foundation, Inc. which was matched and exceeded by NU and the Center for Global Health, as well as by Mekelle in order to develop a program that aims to meet U.S. and international standards.

“We want to contribute to the efforts to decrease maternal mortality in Ethiopia, as well as across Africa,” Goba said. “We hope it will become a training site to transform medical education in Ethiopia.”

The first visit to Ethiopia in October was conducted as a needs assessment to understand the region’s model of healthcare delivery and access to resources. Members of the NU team performed surgeries and participated in rounds with the goal of “training the trainers” at Mekelle.

Subsequent trips included the addition of subspecialty physicians, such as family planning and oncology specialists, to implement a more extensive training program.

Joan Tankou, an NU medical student involved in the project, first surveyed Mekelle residents in June and traveled to the region again in November. She noted that although Mekelle doctors were knowledgeable about theory, training in procedures and diseases specific to the region needed improvement. In Ethiopia, medical students use textbooks similar to those used in the U.S., so they often learn about diseases more prevalent in the U.S. than in Ethiopia.

Like Goba, Tankou, who is from Cameroon, originally hails from Africa. She hopes to use her education to improve the healthcare system in the area.

“For me, this partnership really enforces that it is possible to change the medical system in Africa,” Tankou said. “I hope this initiative to train doctors will reduce the overall mortality and morbidity in Ethiopia.”

Tankou encouraged medical students in the U.S. to consider working abroad in areas like Ethiopia with limited resources, because increased reliance on physical exams instead of expensive diagnostic tools provides students an opportunity to improve basic skills while developing cultural competency and awareness of health disparities.

Dr. Melissa Simon, an assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology at NU, stressed the importance of recognizing such health disparities both abroad and domestically.

“An opportunity to train and experience patient care in a low-resource setting like Ethiopia gives students and residents an improved perspective on healthcare delivery,” Simon said. “But we also need to recognize disparities in our own backyard. People forget that there are disparities in Chicago almost as stark as in other countries.”

As part of NU’s interest in exposing medical residents to these local disparities, the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago was recently integrated into Feinberg’s residency program. Goba hopes expand upon this interest internationally by eventually integrating Mekelle University into NU’s residency program as well.

“Without a robust experience in under-resourced facilities, you won’t become completely self-actualized as a doctor,” Milad said. “We’re able to share what we are privileged with, and it’s a truly profound experience.”

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