Learning in Canada to care for the elderly back home


By John Tonin

Dr. Harriet Nankabirwa works at Mulago Hospital as well as Makerere University, both in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. She works in geriatrics (medical care for the elderly) and she came to Hamilton through the International Outreach Program to further her skills as a geriatrician, a discipline of medicine she says is not regarded highly in Uganda.

“We do not teach geriatrics in our medical school curriculum,” said Nankabirwa. “Everyone has to come out of Uganda [to study], I don’t think there is a school in Africa that teaches geriatrics, you must go elsewhere.”

The population of elderly people in Uganda is rising, and Nankabirwa notes that this could become a problem.

“The older population is growing,” said Nankabirwa. “It was estimated in 2014 that there was one million old people of the 34 million people living in Uganda. Since geriatrics in Uganda is not developed at all, we do not have any geriatricians.”

By comparison, according to the Canadian Medical Association, Canada has 248 geriatricians for a population of 36 million.

At Makerere University Nankabirwa teaches medicine to undergraduate students. Her goal upon returning home is to get geriatrics into the school curriculum.

“The problem right now is there is no interest in geriatrics,” said Nankabirwa. “Since there is no training, young doctors and senior doctors take it for granted. When I return home I am going to try as much as possible to train the undergraduates. I am going to do this by lobbying with the dean of medicine for slots to incorporate tutorials about geriatrics. I will also mentor a few students.”

The aging population is just one reason that Ugandans need to start caring about the elderly. Nankabirwa sees another trend that could be helped with more geriatricians.

“In Uganda and Africa, HIV is a big problem and the young people are dying,” said Nankabirwa. “When the young people die their children are often cared after by their grand-parents. If the grand-parents’ health conditions aren’t being addressed we lose them as well and that is bad for the country.”

Nankabirwa says that the elderly are wise and still have plenty to offer. This is why she says it is important to take care of them. And the IOP is making it easier for her to go home and do that.

The St. Joseph’s Health System International Outreach Program is celebrating its 30thanniversary this year. The program brings doctors from countries all over the world such as Haiti, Guyana and Uganda to learn the latest in Canadian medicine. While in Canada, the doctors are given a medical licence, which means they can treat patients like they would back home. This makes the IOP unique compared to other programs.

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