|One field trip took medical students to the Patiko-Ajulu Internally Displaced Persons Camp near Gulu in northern Uganda near the Sudanese border. This camp houses about 10,000 people forced to leave their homes. This young woman, age 17, is shown a day after giving birth to her son in the camp's clinic.
Going back to the ‘basics’ of
medicine on the wards of Uganda
A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue
of Yale Medicine, which is published by the School of Medicine’s Institutional
Planning and Communications Department. The publication can be found online
In the infectious disease ward at Mulago Hospital in the Ugandan capital of
Kampala, a woman in her early 20s lies on a bed with only a thin sheet to ward
off the morning chill.
Alone, suffering from complications from AIDS, her few possessions in a cardboard
box at her bedside, she has no family to bathe her, bring her food or give her
medicine. These are what doctors here call poor “blanket signs.” The
mere presence — or absence — of a blanket speaks volumes.
Even before they measure the blanket signs, however, the doctors know several
things about their patients. They know that as a national government-run referral
hospital, Mulago receives the sickest of the sick. They know that more than half
the patients in the hospital are infected with HIV. They know that two-thirds
of their patients will die in the hospital or within two months of leaving it.
And they know that most of their patients are too poor to afford more than the
most basic tests and treatments.
Blanket signs will tell them more. The hospital provides patients with a bed.
Patients must bring sheets, blankets and pillows, as well as “attendants” — family
members who care for them. The doctors have learned that just having a blanket
reveals much about a patient’s economic status. Of necessity, the patient’s
ability to pay will drive the treatment regimen. If the patient has no resources,
the doctors will prescribe only the drugs that come free from the pharmacy and
order only the tests that the hospital provides at no cost.
“Medicine is not all about what you have learned in medical school,” says
Dr. Robert Kalyesubula, a Mulago resident. “You prioritize. In the context
of the limitations you have, what can you best do for this person? What is going
to help my diagnosis best? You talk to them so they find a way to get the money,
sacrifice a few things. You save the most expensive tests for last, when you
really need them.”
Improving patient care in New Haven as well as Kampala is the goal of a collaboration
that began in August of 2006 when Dr. Majid Sadigh, associate professor of medicine,
arrived at Mulago with a team of Yale residents. Since then Yale has maintained
a constant presence at the hospital, with Yale residents and attendings [i.e.,
staff physicians] in month-long rotations alongside colleagues from the Faculty
of Medicine at Makerere University and Uganda’s Ministry of Health. In
the summer of 2007 Yale expanded its presence to include three medical students
on new international fellowships; a physician from Russia; two Downs Fellows;
two public health students pursuing research projects; and students from the
Physician Associate Program in addition to three Yale residents.
|On daily rounds at Mulago Hospital are (from left) Patrick Komakech, a Ugandan intern; Rasikh Tuktamysvhov, a physician from Kazan, Russia, who was invited to take part in the program as a result of Sadigh's involvement in the Yale collaboration with a medical school in Kazan; Allison Arwady, a third-year medical student from Yale; and Rachel Smith, a fourth-year medical student from the University of California-San Francisco, who often joined the Yale team on rounds.
The collaboration grew out of Sadigh’s visit to Uganda in 2002 to lecture
and teach on infectious disease. Why, he wondered, was the extraordinary clinical,
medical and epidemiological research taking place at Makerere not finding its
way literally across the street to improve care at Mulago Hospital? Yale, he
felt, could help. “It is one of the best universities in the world,” he
says. “It has a vision of having an impact on the globe. It has the most
In the face of despair and crushing poverty, Sadigh has implemented several ideas,
large and small, that have made things better for people in Uganda. In the fishing
village of Kasensero, the home of the earliest known AIDS case in Uganda, Sadigh
has helped patients at the local clinic and raised money to provide an education
for orphans. At the nearby Holy Family Nazareth School, a boarding high school
where most of the 250 students have been orphaned by AIDS, he has raised money
for bunk beds and solar panels to provide lighting. And at Mulago he has kept
the exchange going for more than a year with support from Yale’s Department
of Internal Medicine and the Yale/Johnson & Johnson Physician Scholars in
International Health program, which funds residents’ trips to Mulago.
When Sadigh first contemplated the collaboration in 2002, he and Dr. Asghar
Rastegar, vice chair of medicine, had already launched a successful program between
Yale and the state medical school in Kazan, Russia. Residents from both countries
have traveled back and forth for clinical rotations for several years. With support
from Rastegar and Dr. David Coleman, interim chair of internal medicine, Sadigh
laid the groundwork for the Uganda exchange. By the summer of 2006 both sides
had signed a memorandum of understanding.
Both Yale and Makerere, they believed, could benefit from an exchange that would
not, in the words of Rastegar, be an exercise in “medical tourism.” Yale
doctors would learn more about tropical and infectious diseases, while Ugandan
doctors would gain access to the latest medical standards and methods.
In practice, however, the lessons that Yale students, residents and attendings
learn from their Ugandan colleagues go much deeper than improving clinical skills
and acquiring knowledge. The Mulago rotations bring into question basic notions
about medicine and the very concept of what it means to be a doctor. This soul-searching
begins on the first encounter with the wards at Mulago.
At the 1,500-bed hospital Yale physicians have few of the tools they take for
granted in the United States. Patients in Mulago are often in a hospital for
the first time in their lives and little or no medical history is available.
They arrive in an advanced stage of disease. The hospital pharmacy may have run
out of basic medications. No one is available to take a patient downstairs for
an X-ray. Test results may take days to arrive. One Yale student took to carrying
a blood pressure cuff with her on rounds since none was available. During a teaching
session the students wandered the wards in search of a working light box so they
could look at X-rays. And it’s not always clear who’s in charge of
a patient, making sure that tests are done and medications are administered.
“When people come here they can really feel bewildered,” says Dr.
Sam Luboga, deputy dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Makerere University. “They
find a hospital full of patients without drugs, without supplies.”
That brings them to a new appreciation of the basic skills of medicine, says
medical registrar Dr. Christophe K. Opio. “You have to make a diagnosis
from the little information you have,” he says. “You become an investigator.
You use all of your senses to identify a problem and then know what to do about
From their Mulago colleagues Yale doctors learn to rely on the most basic tools
of medicine — a rigorous physical examination, whatever history can be
gleaned from the patient and their own knowledge of disease. And that is the
main lesson. “You’re not a doctor if you can only function in a certain
milieu,” Sadigh says. “Sometimes there’s just you and the patient.” ...
Makerere’s medical school has many foreign partners — Case Western
University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California-San Francisco,
the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, McMaster University in
Canada, the University of British Columbia, the University of Dublin and the
University of London. The Yale-Makerere collaboration, however, stands apart.
“Other universities say, ‘Let’s collaborate on research.’ Yale
is interested in improving the quality of health care services and the education
of physicians,” says Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, dean of the Faculty of Medicine
at Makerere. “By improving education we are training health workers to
provide quality services within the context of limited resources.” ...
In resource-poor Mulago Hospital, the Yale residents and students rotating through
the wards last summer incurred a debt to their Ugandan hosts that they doubted
they could repay. As they worked side by side with Ugandan colleagues their physical
examination skills soared; they learned about tropical diseases; and they saw
what were for them uncommon cases of advanced disease. The three medical students
agreed that Mulago provided their best clinical rotation by far. But they all
wondered how much they were helping Mulago Hospital in return. How could they
repay the hospital for all that they were learning? If Yale residents and even
attendings struggle in the absence of resources that are second nature to them,
what can they teach physicians who lack those resources?
“You can always help, even when the facilities are not as good as where
you are from,” says Dr. Edward Ddumba, executive director of Mulago Hospital.
Echoing Sadigh, he adds, “You cannot be paralyzed by different institutions.
People adapt.” ...
Sadigh believes Yale doctors also provide a significant contribution to the hospital.
In the first year of the program, says Sadigh, Yale residents provided 90 weeks
of coverage at the hospital and attendings provided 60 weeks. They set an example
by modeling different attitudes and ways of practicing medicine and interacting
with patients. “If we have any impact on Mulago, we have an impact on the
whole country,” Sadigh says, “because Mulago is setting the standard
for care and education for the country.”
| Mulago Hospital is where the sickest patients are referred. Here, Sadigh tends to an 85-year-old woman with multiple problems, including hypertension and cataracts that could lead to glaucoma.
Among the tangible benefits are the medical supplies that Yale visitors bring
from Recovered Medical Equipment for the Developing World (a.k.a. REMEDY), a
Yale-based organization that salvages surgical supplies and other unused materials
that can’t be used in the United States. The visitors also bring journals
and textbooks. From his office at Yale, librarian Mark Gentry has made online
medical resources and textbooks available to Makerere students and faculty in
“Through this program we have been able to get a lot of reading materials,
which I think makes us better able to look up issues and treat our patients better,” says
Mulago resident Dr. Fred Semitala, a graduate of Makerere. He sees other benefits
as well. “I think it challenges you when you talk to people who have a
better training and a better approach.”
Still, Semitala would like to see more Ugandans train at Yale. So far, three
have traveled to New Haven. “If we train a hematologist or a nephrologist,
then that person is going to train five or more,” he says, adding a caveat. “Training
without the facilities to use doesn’t help. A cardiologist couldn’t
do a better diagnosis if he doesn’t have EKG.”
Dr. Ali Moses, one of three Ugandan trainees to come to Connecticut, spent four
months at Waterbury Hospital and Yale-New Haven Hospital learning about evidence-based
medicine, diagnostic skills and patient management protocols. “The Yale
elective provides an opportunity to appreciate the practice of ‘ideal’ clinical
medicine, which can be used as a standard or benchmark for and basis for improvement
in general clinical care,” he said in an e-mail from Kampala.
Other benefits are intangible yet no less important. A Yale second-year resident,
Dr. Michael X. Lee, who was in Uganda last summer, tried to introduce evidence-based
medicine while on the wards. Evidence-based medicine, a concept that emerged
more than 25 years ago, applies the latest and best evidence to make medical
decisions. “A lot of things are practiced because that is the way it has
been practiced for years,” Lee says. “I try to ask the Ugandan residents, ‘What
is the evidence for what you just said?’ ”
“I think where we can really help is in role modeling,” says Dr.
José Evangelista, a third-year resident who was at Mulago last summer. “It
is my role to help by teaching.”
All the visitors at times felt overwhelmed by the hospital.
“You are frustrated on so many levels,” says Dr. Samit Joshi, a third-year
resident. “At a system level you wish the hospital had more free services
and more basic tests or better nursing care or better doctor care. At a public
health level you wish there were enough prevention campaigns so that people don’t
come in with HIV or malaria or schistosomiasis.”
“It is easy to walk into a situation and be overwhelmed. There is also
a different way of looking at it,” says Lee. “They save a lot of
lives in Mulago. They have treated many people successfully. We have a lot of
respect for the people that work here.”
If the Mulago experience caused the residents and students to question what it
means to be a doctor, the living arrangements altered the traditional hierarchy
of students, residents and attendings. Residents and attendings don’t usually
share bedrooms and bathrooms or see each other in shorts and T-shirts every evening.
Nor do they typically see an attending ironing his shirt in the morning. The
Mulago setting also made for a round-the-clock learning experience — the
talk around the house was usually about medicine.
Home for the Yale team was the Edge Guest House on the 300-acre campus of Makerere
University. The walled university, sitting on a hill of the same name, is a haven
of calm against the bustle of Kampala, where the air fills with the exhaust of
countless matatus — minivans that provide public transport — motorcycles
and taxis. And the Edge, a complex that includes a six-bedroom house and two
smaller outbuildings enclosed inside a wall, provides further insulation from
the city. ... A few blocks away most of the team’s female contingent — five
medical students — shared an on-campus apartment.
Mornings at the Edge began around seven o’clock as residents and students
prepared hot water for tea and ate breakfast — avocado sandwiches were
one resident’s favorite — before heading for Mulago Hospital. The
25-minute walk took the residents and students through the green lawns and crumbling
sidewalks of the university to the eastern gate on busy Bombo Road. Traffic lights
are almost non-existent in Kampala. Traffic circles called roundabouts control
the flow of vehicles at intersections. Frequent speed bumps on busy roads slow
down traffic enough for pedestrians to scurry across.
From Bombo Road the path to Mulago follows a dirt track into a shantytown called
Katanga. Although Katanga is safe during the day, the Yale team is advised to
avoid the slum after dark. The path descends into the Katanga valley, past a
soccer field, past grazing cows and goats, past a small brick factory, up the
dirt track and across another busy thoroughfare to the back entrance of Mulago
At the hospital residents and students started the day with morning report. “We find out how the patient is doing.
Together we come up with a management plan for the day for the patient. Interspersed
with that is the opportunity to do peer teaching,” said Lee.
During one day’s rounds through the infectious disease ward, Joshi worked
with Dr. Patrick Komakech, a Mulago intern, and Dr. Rasikh Tuktamysvhov, from
Kazan, Russia, who was in Uganda at Sadigh’s invitation. Joining the team
was Rachel Smith, a fourth-year medical student from the University of California,
The patients include a woman who looks to be a teenager but is 24. She lies on
a bed covered only by a sheet, with no attendants to look after her. She is HIV-positive
and anemic and has been vomiting. The next patient is a 40-year-woman complaining
of vomiting, fever and headache. The differential diagnosis suggests malaria,
and the doctors administer quinine through an IV. Another patient has good blanket
signs — a suitcase for her belongings and an attendant sitting at her bedside
with a cup of tea. The patient’s diagnosis is cryptococcal meningitis,
a common infection in patients with low CD4 counts.
Among the day’s patients is a 20-year-old woman with AIDS who has been
abandoned by her husband. He has made it clear to the hospital that he doesn’t
want her back. Although she’s not sick enough to remain in the hospital,
she’s too sick to be on her own. A social worker intervenes and the husband
takes her back.
By noon, rounds are over and the medical teams break for lunch, usually in the
hospital canteen on the second floor. Lunch can be snacks — small pizzas
or fried meat pies — or a buffet that offers a heaping plate of rice, sweet
potatoes and matoke (mashed plantain) covered by a bean, beef or goat stew.
After lunch the residents may perform tasks that usually fall to nurses in the
United States, such as drawing blood for tests or removing fluid from patients’ abdomens.
On-call days are the same, except that between 4 and 5 p.m., they go to the casualty
ward and evaluate new patients, determine the primary problem, and triage them
to such different services as gastroenterology, infectious disease, renal, pulmonary,
cardiology or neurology.
Two or three evenings a week, Sadigh set up two laptops in the living room of
the Edge Guest House to give talks on infectious disease. He also arranged for
classes in Luganda, one of the country’s principal languages, talks on
Ugandan history by a political scientist and weekend trips to sites of historical
and cultural significance.
Their experiences in Uganda have already had an effect on the doctors and students.
For the students, it has confirmed or altered their career choices — all
three medical students have chosen to specialize in internal medicine — and
their sense of what is important to learn. And residents find themselves taking
a different approach to medicine.
“I think my physical exam skills went through the roof,” says Joshi,
the second-year resident, a few weeks after his return to Connecticut. “My
ordering of tests has probably gone down by 40%. If I get this test, X-ray or
CT scan — which is hard to come by in Mulago — is it going to give
me some new insight that I can’t get by putting my stethoscope on the patient’s
And it’s not just students and residents starting out in their careers
who are affected by the experience. “What does it really mean to be an
effective clinician?” asks Dr. Merceditas Villanueva, an infectious disease
specialist at Yale-affiliated Waterbury Hospital who spent three weeks at Mulago.
In October she addressed a reception to open an exhibit of photographs and essays
about Uganda. “From where does a clinician’s power ultimately derive?
Clearly, we rely on our technical expertise, our knowledge of pathophysiology,
our ability to use evidence to make diagnoses and formulate treatment plans. … But
beyond this, I believe our power derives from our ability to listen, examine
carefully, synthesize data and draw on our previous experiences.”
For Sadigh it’s not enough that Yale students, residents and attendings
learn how to practice medicine with limited resources. He also wants to purge
them of prejudices or paternalism. “We shouldn’t be making judgments
for a community that is overwhelmed at every level,” he says. He expects
that the young Yale doctors will learn from the experience, and he acknowledges
the difficulties they face — linguistic and cultural barriers as well as
patients who have no money for medicines or no one to fetch them a glass of water.
“It is a kind of shock therapy,” says Mulago medical registrar Opio. “Most
people do not know what happens in the developing world. … Many of them
are going to become great people in their lifetimes, but I think their experience
here will make them better people.”
That is also the hope that drives Sadigh.
“At the end of the trip they will be different people,” he says. “I
can’t measure that, but I think they will be different people. … If
they become a better person, in the future I think Uganda is going to gain a
lot from this. That is a long-term investment.”
— Photos and Story by John Curtis
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