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OHSU course gives doctors ‘basic training’ to provide care in developing world

Retired Salem ophthalmologist, creator of the course, wins national award for his work

After a career spent as an ophthalmologist in Salem, Andy Harris, M.D., was ready to give back by being a doctor in an entirely different way. He hoped to travel to developing countries to offer basic medical services to people in dire need.

But there was a problem: he realized to be truly helpful, he needed a refresher on primary care, and some training on practicing medicine in the often difficult circumstances doctors find in low-income countries. And, looking around, he could find no way for U.S. medical professionals to get such training.

So Harris created a course — at Oregon Health & Science University’s Global Health Center. He became its coordinator at the same time he was one of its first students.

The sought-after course — Professionals Training in Global Health — is now in its fourth year. And it has won Harris some recent national accolades. The national Purpose Prize, which recognizes people late in their careers who are creating new ways to solve social problems, recently recognized Harris as one of its Purpose Prize Fellows, specifically citing his work with the Global Health Center course.

Harris says the Purpose Prize recognition is less important than how successful the course has become. The course not only gives U.S. medical professionals a chance to provide care overseas, he says; it also enables them to provide care locally — in free medical clinics for the uninsured where course participants volunteer one evening per week.

“We in the medical profession are privileged in many ways,” Harris says. “The beauty of this course is that it broadens our skills, while enabling us to give back to the medically underserved, both locally and globally.”

The course is offered in the fall for 11 successive weeks. The OHSU Global Health Center plans to expand it from 12 to 16 trainees in the fall of 2012.

The average age of course participants has been about 55, Harris says. But participants have ranged in age from 37 to 75.

The course employs about 35 guest speakers with overseas experience. It offers information and training on, among other topics, tropical diseases, childhood illness, trauma care, malnutrition, casting and splinting, breach deliveries and laboratory identification of parasites. It covers essential medications in the field and how to set up a medical delivery system following a disaster. And with help from Medical Teams International, it spends a full day on medical team safety and security, including a field exercise that features a simulated insurgent attack and hostage taking.

Robert Amon, M.D., a retired dermatologist who practiced in Lake Oswego as well as in several Alaska and Oregon communities until 2000, took the course this fall. Having spent six years in the Peace Corps, Amon says he especially appreciated that each of the course’s speakers had deep experience practicing medicine in challenging environments overseas.

“They weren’t lecturing from a textbook; they were teaching based upon personal field experience,” Amon says.

Graduates of the course are using what they’re learning; so far, graduates have gone on 49 medical missions to 24 countries, Harris says.

But Harris says there’s also been an unanticipated benefit of the course: participants are becoming much more involved in providing medical care at free medical clinics in the Portland area and around the state. About a third of the graduates continue to volunteer in the local medical clinics, where they are able to maintain their primary care skills while serving the poor and uninsured. Some of these patients, notes Dr. Harris, are refugees and immigrants from overseas.  

“That was not part of my vision when I first set this up,” Harris says. “But what has happened is specialists like getting back into primary care, and find a real satisfaction in being able to treat people locally.”

Amon says many U.S. physicians believe more needs to be done to provide medical care to underserved people — both locally and globally. “I think what this course does, and does so well, is provide medical professionals at the end of their careers an opportunity to relearn forgotten skills and acquire updated knowledge. This focused training readies them to care for those underserved, both at home and abroad.”

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