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In the Midst of War, Future Syrian Doctors Trained with Help From Yale Faculty, Students

October 20, 2016
by Jennifer Kaylin

Syria is now entering its sixth year of war. More than a third of its hospitals have closed and about 65 percent of health workers have fled. There is an urgent need for medical training, to replace both the health care workers who have been killed and the ones who have left.

Responding to this need, students and faculty at the Yale School of Public Health, School of Medicine, Yale University and The Global Institute for Health and Human Rights of the State University of New York at Albany have launched efforts to aid medical students in Syria so they can continue their educations safely in a country decimated by war.

“There are hundreds of Syrian medical student who want to study medicine, but they can’t,” said Kaveh Khoshnood, M.P.H. ’89, Ph.D. ’95, associate professor of epidemiology and one of the lead faculty involved in Yale’s response. “The pipeline of doctors and nurses in Syria has been destroyed.”

Syrian students are studying in basements and bunkers, always in small groups, so they aren’t targeted for aerial bombardments by Syrian and Russian fighter jets. There are also plans to send tablets preloaded with medical information such as anatomy and histology. The tablets can also facilitate online instruction, a challenge as electricity and access to the Internet are frequently disrupted.

Yale’s collaborative response includes making online learning available to future medical professionals in Syria. Yale faculty members Robert Rohrbaugh, M.D. ’82, H.S. ’86, F.W. ’88, professor of psychiatry; Hani Mowafi, M.D., M.P.H. assistant professor of emergency medicine; Andres Barkil-Oteo, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry; Hamada Hamid Altalib, D.O., M.P.H., assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry and others are working with Yale librarians and the dean’s office to provide free access to thousands of online materials that Yale students use regularly.

Last spring, when the Yale Council of Middle East Studies reached out for grant ideas, Khoshnood suggested the theme of “Conflict and Health” and partnered with Mowafi, who had been in regular conversation with the leadership of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, the Syrian American Medical Society and other organizations working on health care issues inside Syria.

A weekend-long workshop at Yale, funded by the Council on Middle East Studies of the Yale University MacMillan Center was organized in early May 2016 with the title of “Human Resources for Health Under Fire: The Case of Syria.”

The pipeline of doctors and nurses in Syria has been destroyed.

Kaveh Khoshnood

The workshop objective was to identify short-, medium-, and long term-challenges to closing gaps in human-resource needs in Syria as well as outline ways of meeting those challenges based on best practices from other post-crisis settings. The workshop also explored ways to leverage advances in communication and computing technology to support distance learning for health professionals under fire. The workshop brought together many people, including faculty from the State University of New York in Albany, who teamed with Yale faculty to come up with plans to assist Syrian medical students.

Working with SUNY, this initiative will provide Syrian students with online courses they can use to study independently. Mowafi and Khoshnood are now working with a few medical students and Syrian colleagues to evaluate the effectiveness of the online courses they have make available.

Future plans include more online courses as well as providing access to downloadable medical education materials to Syrian medical students. There is also an urgent need to raise funds to support these and future initiatives that have so far been supported on a volunteer basis.

With violent-conflict-driven displacement from Syria and other countries reaching its highest levels, the Yale School of Public Health is devoting its 2016 Alumni Day to this issue by bringing together local, national and global specialists on the topic of the public-health response to armed conflict and forced migration.

The event will feature a keynote address by Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, and a panel discussion with Aniyizhai Annamalai, assistant professor of psychiatry and medicine at Yale; Chris George, executive director of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in New Haven; Unni Karunakara, senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale and past international president of Doctors Without Borders; and Paul Spiegel, professor and director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Khoshnood will moderate the discussion.

“Violent conflict and population displacement have devastating consequences for health and deserve our attention,” said Khoshnood. “I am delighted that the Yale School of Public Health has selected this topic for its alumni day this year.”

Submitted by Denise Meyer on October 20, 2016