Malawi-based FP to Talk About Practicing Internationally

AAFP to Host "Family Medicine On Air" Event on World Family Doctor Day

May 17, 2016 02:26 pm Chris Crawford

World Family Doctor Day(www.globalfamilydoctor.com) is May 19, and to celebrate the work family physicians are doing around the world, the AAFP is hosting a "Family Medicine On Air"(plus.google.com) Google Hangout that day from 10-10:15 a.m. CDT. The live event will feature John Parks, M.D., who is currently based in Malawi. (Editor's Note: The Hangout episode has been archived on the AAFP website.) 

Family physician John Parks, M.D., (right) discusses a case with two Malawian residents (Jessie Mbamba, M.B.B.S., left, and Modai Mnenula, M.B.B.S., center) during ward rounds at Mangochi District Hospital.

Parks will discuss his experience working as a lecturer in the department of family medicine at the University of Malawi College of Medicine. The department has only been around since 2011, and Parks himself has only been at the school since July of last year.

Laying the Groundwork for a Career in International Medicine

After graduating from the Georgetown University School of Medicine in 2010, Parks completed his family medicine residency at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2013. He then served a one-year health policy fellowship at the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.

As the focus of his fellowship, Parks helped complete a project assessing and mapping the global status of family medicine. The finished product became the AAFP's World Health Mapper.

Parks also worked at a federally qualified health center as part of his fellowship and spent the final one-third of his term as fellow teaching medical students and residents at Georgetown University.

Story highlights
  • The AAFP is hosting a "Family Medicine On Air" Google Hangout on May 19 from 10-10:15 a.m. CDT featuring John Parks, M.D., who is currently based in Malawi.
  • For the live event, Parks said he plans to offer advice for medical students, including what he wishes he had known when he was in medical school, as well as outline what global health means to him and provide insight on working internationally.
  • Parks said family physicians are well-suited to practicing medicine internationally because family medicine is about relationships.

"Through (the World Health Mapper) project and the connections I built, I found out there was a nascent family medicine department here in Malawi in the country's only medical school," Parks said.

His interest piqued, Parks and his wife, who works as an advocate for international human rights, packed their bags and moved to Malawi in August 2014.

"I had a strong desire and passion to live and work in this part of the world. We were looking for opportunities to work overseas," he told AAFP News. This drive to explore the world, Parks said, came from his upbringing in a military family, which required regular reassignments to different countries.

Growing Family Medicine in Malawi

After a yearlong stint working with the Baylor College of Medicine's International Pediatric AIDS Initiative in Malawi, Parks said his drive to work in family medicine drew him to the fledgling family medicine department at the University of Malawi College of Medicine in Blantyre.

His current position as lecturer for the school opened up a year later and that is where he spends most of his time now, educating medical students and "postgraduate registrars" (residents). The family medicine department established its postgraduate (i.e., residency) program just last year, and Parks has helped facilitate how and by whom the postgraduate curriculum is taught.

The teaching site for the residents is at Mangochi District Hospital -- about three hours away from the school -- so Parks travels every other week to help residents there with bedside teaching and designing quality improvement projects.

In addition to his duties as lecturer, Parks' peers chose him to be deputy head of the family medicine department. And working at a small medical school that's just getting established means Parks pitches in wherever he can, which includes writing grants and communicating with external partners.

He said practicing medicine overseas can be much more taxing than what he experienced in the United States.

"There are a lot of challenges in an international system that you take for granted in the United States," Parks said. "For example, making sure residents get paid on payday. Here, it takes more followup to make sure things happen. That is one of my roles."

Parks said the department's goal is to work in concert with the Malawi Ministry of Health to get two family physicians stationed at each of the 28 district hospitals in the country, which serve anywhere between 150,000 and 1 million people each.

Currently, these district hospitals are staffed by district health officers and medical officers; both groups are medical graduates but they spend a lot of their time in administrative work. Most of the actual clinical services are delivered by so-called clinical officers, who would be similar to physician assistants or nurse practitioners in the United States, he said.

"The goal would be for the family physicians to lead these clinical teams that include the clinical officers and also midwives and nurses," Parks said.

Planning for "Family Medicine On Air" Event

During the Google Hangout on May 19, Parks said he plans to offer advice for medical students, including what he wishes he had known when he was in medical school, as well as outline what global health means to him and provide insight on working internationally.

The event will conclude with a question-and-answer session.

Parks said family physicians are well-suited to practicing medicine internationally because family medicine is about relationships.

"Developing relationships and walking alongside people in a country that is not your country of birth -- there is a lot of value that can be shared," he said. "Those relationships enrich both sides."

U.S. physicians can bring their skills to places with limited resources, Parks added, "And the things you learn can come back with you and inform, influence and change how you see the world."

Overall, he noted, once a family physician has decided to practice internationally, he or she must approach that new role and environment with humility.

Looking Down the Line

Parks said he and his wife have discussed staying in Malawi for at least the next three to five years.

"I would love to see the first couple of classes of family medicine residents graduate," he explained.

However, his military upbringing has him considering his next move.

"When I worked on the (World Health Mapper) project, I said I want to help figure out where family medicine was and was not in order to help change the map," Parks said. "My wife and I enjoy living in this part of the world and if you look at the map, there are a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that do not have developed family medicine systems. So I would love to help do this again somewhere else."

Related AAFP News Coverage
New Tool Maps Family Medicine's Impact Around the World
(3/31/2015)

Inaugural Family Medicine Cares International Trip Changes Lives of Haitians, Delegation Members
(3/19/2013)
 


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