New Doctor Chooses To Return Home After Completing Her Education To Aid Women’s Health in Ethiopia

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Dr. Gelila Goba hasn’t forgotten where she came from.

Instead of joining a comfortable practice in the U.S. after completing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, Goba instead will be caring for patients in her native Ethiopia, where in many communities light and heat qualify as luxuries.

After she graduates in May, Goba plans to move back to Ethiopia to implement a new initiative that she hopes will improve the state of women’s health in the desperately poor country of 90 million.

“A lot has been given to me,” said Goba, during a break at Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. “I must make sure that I use those gifts wisely.”

The program is a partnership between Northwestern and Mekelle University in Ethiopia. It provides medical education, clinical training and research in sub-Saharan Africa, where acute doctor shortages and women’s health continue to be vexing problems.

In Ethiopia, the maternal mortality rate is twice the global average, and the rate of death from cervical cancer is almost seven times higher than in the U.S., according to the World Health Organization. The entire country has about 220 OB–GYNs nationwide—roughly the same number as Northwestern Memorial alone, according to university officials.

Residency programs are rare in Ethiopia. After students earn medical degrees, they often become general practitioners and work in district hospitals, experts said. OB-GYN subspecialties such as oncology, high-risk obstetrics and fertility are virtually nonexistent. Some doctors seek training abroad, but it has not been standardized. The Mela Project aims to raise the bar and formalize residency training.

“This is not medical tourism, but about something that is truly sustainable, about training the trainers,” said Dr. Magdy Milad, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NU’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “With Gelila as the steward of this program, it will not fail.”

The program, called the Mela Project, gained traction when Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Tedros Adhanom, visited Northwestern in 2012 to rally global resources for women’s health. Goba credited Adhanom with setting up programs to train health workers who provide care in nearly every community across Ethiopia—especially for women and children, the most vulnerable and underserved.

Northwestern embraced the idea and moved forward with the collaboration with Mekelle University, under the direction of Goba.

Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, praised such partnerships.

“Building and retaining human resources across a broad range of medical and nonmedical skills is vital to saving lives and reducing disabilities in developing countries,” Martin said. “Universities like NU are an excellent and underutilized way to build access to the public health, primary and surgical care systems needed to do this.”

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