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Global Health Day: Training health care professionals half a world away

Building capacity for health care, particularly in lower income countries, can be a daunting task. Besides acquiring the equipment and resources, you need knowledge and trained professionals to deliver life-sustaining care when and where it’s needed. Dr. Gabor Fichtinger, Professor, School of Computing with cross-appointments to the Departments of Surgery, and Pathology and Molecular Medicine, is a Canada Research Chair in Computer-Integrated Surgery, who is working to do just that.    

Using 3D Slicer, the world’s leading open-source software platforms for medical image analysis and scientific visualization, and one he has had a leading role in developing over the course of his career, Dr. Fichtinger is helping to create transformational change in how medical personnel are trained in the west African countries of Senegal and Mauritania.  

Q: Tell us a bit about the project you’re working on. 

We are in the business of developing the human infrastructure to help enable digital medicine and mobile health in lower-income countries. In Africa, for instance, their health care systems will not be based on the models we use now in North America. We need to power, empower and prepare them for the future.  

We are training health care workers in digital pathology, interventions and computer-assisted surgeries using 3D Slicer. In Mauritania, they have taken this and created a national centre of image-guided therapies and there will soon be one established in Senegal through the leadership of the military health care system—which delivers much of the health care throughout the country. In Senegal, they are adopting a ‘train the trainer’ program to scale up its use. It’s pretty exciting.  

Q: What problems do you want to solve through this project? 

We have been fortunate that 3D Slicer and its technologies have been embraced extensively around the world—we even have users in the southern tip of Patagonia—but we are also aware that there have been some large gaps on the user map within parts of Africa and South America where it has not been deployed. We decided to make a concerted effort to help bring this technology to use in more places where it’s needed. Working with our partners at the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, and Harvard Medical School in the U.S., we were able to secure funding for the program. In Senegal and Mauritania, they have low rates of educating medical doctors. For example, there is only one university in all of Mauritania and it can take a very long time to fully educate a medical student. We are helping to increase that capacity.

Dr. Gabor Fichtinger
Dr. Gabor Fichtinger

Q: How are you working together to make this happen? 

In Senegal, the army is adopting the train the trainer approach and are fully committed to it. They have very strong engineering and computer science expertise, which is what you need alongside the medical personnel for this to be successful. So, this is a collaboration, much like we have at Queen’s between technical and medical professionals. In Mauritania, we have also been helping them get equipment: ultrasound machines, surgical trackers, computers and other hardware. Canada doesn’t even have diplomatic relations with that country, so it’s very difficult work.  

Q: Why do you do what you do? 

All my life, I have been fascinated with computing and math and for many years I was a computer scientist, doing it all for the sake of solving problems or puzzles. I love the intellectual challenge but grew to realize that there must be some purpose in computing—some consequence. This brings the human element to my work. We have done a great deal of good and there is much more to do.  

Q: What do you hope the impact of this work to be? 

I will be content when the countries we are working in now have people who can take this and make it self-sustaining and bring it to the next level: to invent new things and take them to clinical trials. People-building is slow and tedious, it does not happen overnight.  

Dr. Fichtinger and his colleagues are active collaborators working to advance global health through the Kaleidoscope Institute within Queen’s Health Sciences.  

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