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Federal health minister helps change face of primary care in Ethiopia

By Samuel Getachew 

In the summer of 2008, Canada’s (now) Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Philpott, was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she met with Ethiopian colleagues to explore the possibility of establishing family medicine as a formal discipline in the East African country of 90 million people.

For the next decade, she would help spread an initiative to help launch such a program in the East African nation. In time, with the help of her colleagues at the University of Toronto and Addis Ababa University and many others, and with frequent trips to Ethiopia, she would help launch the program.

Last week, the pioneer program helped graduate seven individuals for the first time. In attendance at the graduation ceremony was Dr. Katherine Rouleau, director of the global health program at the University of Toronto and one of the initiative’s advocate.

One of the most visible ambassador of the program and prime advocate, Dr. Philpott, described the day as “a dream come true.”

As she reflected in a 2013 blog: “A strong program in Family Medicine can make a vital contribution to the improvement of health systems. It will prepare a cadre of comprehensive-care physicians who should be well trained, fairly distributed and appropriately resourced. Graduates will be competent in a broad range of technical, surgical and emergency skills. Family physicians will help provide better access to services and prevention along with early recognition of undifferentiated illness. The training will prepare family physicians to be an essential part of inter-professional primary care teams.”

Indeed. To Ethiopia — one of the fastest growing economies in the world, yet facing shortages of the basic necessitates of human life to its populations — it is tragic that there are very few doctors in the country, let alone those equipped with family medicine credentials to provide health care. Among the few that become doctors, most are concentrated in the major cities of Ethiopia and it is even much worse in the rural parts of the country. Sadly, many leave the public health system and head to the private sector while many migrate to western countries.

For Dr. Mahlet Yigeremu, the former Dean of Medicine at Addis Ababa University, the initiative of training Ethiopian doctors for family medicine is, “a discipline without boundaries, community-based and responsive to the needs of the people.” She adds, “Now that I have seen and understand family medicine, I am convinced it is what our country needs most.”

At the end, Dr. Philpott humbly describes her efforts, as a “small contribution to this grand scheme has been advised to assist in the development of a new post-graduate clinical specialty in Family Medicine at Addis Ababa University.”

Her contribution, her legacy, the way the world understands Canada to behave in the world, will bring much impact to the country of my birth. In the words of the director of the program, it will “change the face of primary care in Ethiopia.”

Upon Dr. Philpott becoming Canada’s first Medical Doctor Health Minister last year, her colleague and supporter in the building of Ethiopia’s first medical training center, Dr. Brian Cornelson, described her as “very warm, gracious and optimistic. He added, “It’s hard not to fall in love with her.”

I have.

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