Training Pediatricians, Internists, and Future Doctors in Laos
Case Western Reserve University + National University of Laos + Khon Kaen University + Health Frontiers USA + Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital
Two awards granted by Higher Education for Development and funded by USAID helped launch an enormously successful internal medicine and pediatric program through a partnership with Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), the National University of Laos (NUL), Khon Kaen University and two nonprofit organizations. Awards supported exchanges for health leaders and practitioners between NUL and CWRU and helped pave the way for the creation of the country’s first post-graduate medical program in pediatrics and internal medicine.
The awards, which totaled at $100,000, were radically exceeded by partner contributions, estimated at $1.5 million during the funding period, and in excess when factoring in forgone salaries of long-term volunteer doctors. The result is a highly trained, motivated group of Laotian and American doctors collaborating, “as a gift to humanity,” said Dr. Sing Menorath, dean of NUL’s medical school.
In 1997, Laos had only seven trained pediatricians to serve its 2.5 million children. Wanting to help, Dr. Karen Olness, a professor at CWRU, and her husband Hakon Torjesen assembled a team of volunteers to help Lao faculty plan and establish a pediatric program in 1997 and an internal medicine program in 2002. These were the country’s first full-time postgraduate medical education programs for pediatrics and internal medicine. Their goal was to educate graduates to provide low-cost, high-quality care with the assistance of volunteer doctors.
To manage the program, Torjesen and Olness founded Health Frontiers and encouraged trained U.S. doctors to volunteer for one to two years in exchange for living quarters and an opportunity to develop cadres of doctors in Laos.
As of 2008, Laos has 42 pediatricians and 23 internists who graduated from this program. Every province of Laos is now represented by at least one graduate, the majority of whom returned to their home provinces where they are recognized as leaders. They are better prepared to practice medicine, and they are training others to raise the capacity of the country’s health providers.
Although funding from USAID ended in September 2004, the training program continues to expand region-wide to include medical specialties and a residency component with Khon Kaen University in neighboring Thailand. This cross-border collaboration has helped KKU emerge as an internationally and regionally known teaching center for medicine.