Northern Ontario Benefits from Global Collaboration

Roger Strasser, Founding Dean, Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

Roger Strasser, Founding Dean, Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

In addition to being a highly respected physician, educator, and researcher, Professor Paul Worley, Dean of Flinders University School of Medicine in Australia (and a dear friend and colleague of mine), has a way with words. A few weeks ago, he spoke eloquently about an issue that is near and dear to my heart.

“When I grow old and frail, I know I will be in good hands if I find myself in the care of medical students with whom I currently have the pleasure of working,” he said.

“But, depending on where I choose to settle as I age, I may not be in good hands,” Paul continued. “Because there may not be any hands at all. This is the reality for many people around the world. There is no one in their community to provide them with the medical care that they need and deserve.”

Silence swept across a room of nearly 300 international health professionals, educators, and researchers after Paul’s words. He was speaking at Muster 2014, a conference on global, community-engaged medical education hosted jointly by Flinders University and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM).

The individuals in this audience had gathered in the remote community of Uluru (known previously as Ayer’s Rock) in Australia to discuss the ways in which we can work together to ensure that all communities around the world have enough “hands” to provide quality health care to everyone—no matter where they live.

You might be thinking: “The Northern Ontario School of Medicine was designed in, of, and for the North. Why has NOSM partnered with a school in Australia?”

Canadians and Australians have much in common. Both countries share a vast geography with low population density outside of the major urban centres. In both countries, access to health care in rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities has historically been limited, leading to poorer health outcomes.

In order to make a positive change to the health of the people of their regions, both NOSM and Flinders have taken a similar and distinct approach to medical education. Both schools focus their education and research on the priority health needs of the people and communities that they serve, and collaborate with these communities to provide relevant education and research. This is what we call social accountability and community engagement.

NOSM and Flinders are not the only organizations interested in reforming health professional education for underserved populations. Our two schools are part of the Training for Health Equity Network (THEnet), a network of medical schools that operate in poorly resourced, rural, remote, and underserved regions of Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. We also work with the Consortium for Longitudinal Integrated Clerkships (CLIC), a network that promotes education wherein students learn to provide comprehensive care to patients through longitudinal learning—an educational opportunity that is new to medical education and that supports learners in choosing to practise in rural, remote, and underserved areas.

The importance of our collaboration with Flinders, THEnet, CLIC, and many other organizations remains consistent: with so much in common, we almost can’t afford not to collaborate. The health of our people is what is at stake. That’s why, every two years, NOSM and Flinders jointly host conferences to bring together educators, researchers, and health professionals working towards the same goals.

The most recent in this series of conferences was Muster 2014, held from October 27-30. The conference focused on four themes that are relevant to all international organizations dedicated to improving health in rural and remote communities: community engagement, social accountability, longitudinal learning, Aboriginal and rural health.

Participants heard engaging plenaries from: the Ngangkari, a group of traditional healers in central Australia; Dr. Fortunato Cristobal, founding Dean of the Ateneo de Zamboanga University School of Medicine (ADZU-SOM) about the incredible contribution ADZU-SOM has made in the hugely underserved area Zamboanga in the Philippines; and NOSM’s own Dr. Rachel Ellaway about the various dimensions of the interface between community and medical education. There was also an opportunity for medical students to recommend the future priorities for medical education from their perspective, and a presentation from Dr. Erica Wheeler of the World Health Organization (WHO) about a new toolkit the WHO has developed to assess health workforce education programs.

In all, there were seven plenary sessions, nearly 200 workshops and parallel presentations, and 25 academic posters. There were hundreds of opportunities for international collaborators to discuss their strategies, successes, and challenges in delivering socially accountable and community-engaged medical education.

Dr. Greville Wood, a physician and educator in rural New Zealand, said: “For the last few days, I have been surrounded by many passionate people who live and breathe medical education. My head is full of all kinds of new, applicable ideas that I’ll bring home with me.”

Greville underpinned what is truly important about these conferences—the opportunity to share and learn strategies that can improve our pursuit of equitable health care – strategies that will help us make tangible changes right here, at home.­­

I feel confident that together, hand in hand, the many organizations with similar goals can work together to change the reality of health in their regions for the better. My sincere hope is that, in the years to come, there will be no one in the situation that Paul Worley described, where there are no hands to provide people in rural and remote areas with the care that they need.

Filed in: Commentary

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