Immediately after a devastating earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti in January 2010, a group of Brigham and Women’s Hospital physicians gathered together to ask: How can we help?
One of them, Michelle Morse, MD, MPH, had traveled to Haiti during her BWH Global Health Equity residency. After the earthquake, she met Zadok Sacks, MD, then a resident at BWH and Boston Children’s Hospital.
Together, Morse and Sacks founded Physicians for Haiti (P4H) to help rebuild and improve Haiti’s healthcare system. The earthquake exacerbated the health problems Haitians already faced, with increased death rates from malnutrition, cholera, and other deadly infections and diseases. Seeing the desperate need for infrastructure and medical education programs, they established the nonprofit organization to connect Haitian health professionals with learning opportunities and resources to enhance the care they provide—and the necessary training to become medical educators themselves.
“Haiti is full of amazing health care professionals who work every day to provide the best care they can, often without access to any of the resources that we have here—the network of colleagues, technology, or equipment,” explains Sacks, an associate physician at BWH.
Since its inception, the response to P4H’s medical education focus in Haiti has been overwhelmingly positive. “Medical students especially are interested in working with us because they want to learn innovative approaches to medicine,” says Morse, who serves as a hospitalist at BWH and the Partners In Health deputy chief medical officer for Haiti.
According to Morse and Sacks, P4H’s visiting professor program has been particularly successful, partnering 35 experts from the United States with more than 500 Haitian colleagues around specific medical topics.
Aaron Berkowitz, MD, PhD, a chief neurology resident at BWH, served twice as a visiting professor. “There is just one practicing neurologist in Haiti for a population of 10 million,” he says. “This means most medical students, residents, and physicians have never interacted with a neurologist during their training. Yet the burden of neurological disease is enormous.”
During his visits, Berkowitz held conferences on core neurology topics for physicians and residents in two hospitals and conducted bedside teaching about patients with neurological issues. “Even more important than the lectures is seeing patients together with my Haitian colleagues, as so much of neurologic diagnosis and treatment comes from examining the patient and interpreting the examination,” he says.
Berkowitz has been humbled and educated by his experiences in Haiti. “Haitian physicians have extraordinary bedside clinical skills because they routinely have to make very difficult decisions with much less lab or radiology data—not to mention treatment options—than we would have here,” he says.
In addition to visiting professors, P4H arranges conferences for Haitian health professionals, a three-week-long social medicine course for Haitian and foreign medical students, and a program called “Teach the Teacher” with interactive sessions to foster skills integral to being an excellent medical educator.
“Haiti is now prioritizing the expansion of medical training programs to close the gap of needed healthcare professionals, but there is a shortage of medical educators who have experience running these types of programs,” Sacks explains.
Dependent on philanthropy to fund its work, P4H hopes to establish a medical education fellowship. “We have this dream where medical education fellows would receive intensive training on being educators, and come to BWH to learn from our own expert medical educators,” Morse says.
The organization’s ultimate goal is to help the people of Haiti by building a vibrant medical education community and fostering sustainable progress. “By partnering with our Haitian colleagues over the long term, we are gradually helping to build the capacity of the healthcare system and improve the health of Haitian citizens,” Sacks says. “We are united by the belief that a stronger, healthier Haiti must ultimately be built from within.”