Thanks to the Wyss Medical Foundation, Mass General and its partners are working to expand health care in rural Uganda.

Massachusetts General Hospital has helped launch a new program that aims to bring disease prevention and early treatment to the rural communities outside one of Uganda’s largest cities, Mbarara.

The idea is to take care of people in that first mile between their homes in the villages and the regional hospital.

The program, The First Mile, is the latest initiative of a ten-year partnership that includes Mass General, the Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) and the 400-bed Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital (MRRH). Initially focused on the HIV/AIDS crisis, the partnership has grown to include broader biomedical research, think tanks focused on local healthcare challenges, clinical quality improvement initiatives, educational training and community-based programs.

Supported by the philanthropy of the Wyss Medical Foundation, The First Mile is equipping specially trained doctors, nurses and village health workers to go into the communities and schools. There, they work on prevention and treatment of a number of common diseases.

 “The idea of the program is to continue in partnership with Ugandan leaders to build up the capacity of the university and hospital to take care of people in that first mile between people’s homes in the villages and the regional hospital,” says Louise Ivers, MD, MPH, DTM&H, executive director of Mass General Global Health.

Lasting Impact

Most of Uganda’s 44.3 million citizens are rural subsistence farmers without access to routine health care. The program is innovative in providing a bridge between the rural communities and the large district hospital.

The First Mile, is the latest initiative of a partnership that includes Mass General, the Mbarara University of Science and Technology and the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, pictured here.
The First Mile is the latest initiative of a partnership that includes Mass General, the Mbarara University of Science and Technology and the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital, pictured above.

“It supports the priorities of the university and hospital to prepare the next generation of health workers to meet the needs of the community,” according to Stephen Asiimwe, MD, MPH, DrPH, Mass General’s program director in Uganda, who adds, “This program will have a lasting impact on health practice in Uganda for years to come.”

Nursing leaders from Mass General, MRRH and MUST have worked together to develop nursing education curricula and resources. Through the Mass General Global Nursing Fellowship, Mass General nurses with expertise in areas of local clinical need — such as cancer care or wound care — go to Uganda for three months at a time to train and mentor nurses.

“The nursing faculty has been completely transformed, clinical care has improved, and research and scientific collaboration has been tremendous,” Dr. Ivers says of philanthropic investments in the MGH-MUST partnership. “Our Mbarara colleagues tell us that our work together has helped them become a leading institution in Sub-Saharan Africa for the sciences.”

Having a direct impact on patients is very important to Mr. Wyss.

Wyss Investment Transformative

The Wyss Medical Foundation’s support means a great deal to the future of such initiatives. “It’s a transformative investment in our partnership,” Dr. Ivers says.

The First Mile program was launched in June 2018 in Mbarara. The celebration was attended by Dr. Ivers and other Mass General education and nursing leaders. Also attending was Stephen Schwartz, a Wyss Medical Foundation board member, as well as Dr. Charles Olweny, the chancellor of MUST, and many Ugandan physicians, nurses and academic leaders. A new van that had been purchased for the program was on display. It was high on the wish list of Ugandan nurses to ensure their transport to local communities for the work.  

Mr. Schwartz first visited Mbarara in 2016 to see the scope of what the hospital was doing in patient care and research.

Read more about Mass General’s efforts in Uganda:
Moms Helping Moms: Uganda Effort Expands
Doctors Press for Uganda Breast Cancer Screening
Impact in Uganda Reflects MGH Global Health Mission

“As soon as I set foot in the ward, I saw one of the MGH nursing fellows we had funded who was instructing others on how to change a dressing,” he recalls. “The Ugandan doctors and nurses are genuinely committed to delivering the best care to their patients.”

Narrowing the Healthcare Gap

The Wyss Medical Foundation was created by Hansjörg Wyss, MBA, a Swiss entrepreneur and founder of the medical device company Synthes, Inc. The foundation has a strong focus on healthcare disparities.

Having a direct impact on patients is very important to Mr. Wyss. “He’s a no-nonsense guy,” Mr. Schwartz explains. “He won’t support a program unless he has a clear understanding of its vision, fundamentals, economics and above all, its commitment to patients.

 “We realize that there are billions of people on this planet who don’t get decent health care,” he adds.  “We want to help create opportunities to narrow that gap, and support programs that mentor, teach, share ideas and, of course, treat patients.”

The partnership Mass General is part of in Mbarara does exactly that and without a lot of bureaucracy, Mr. Schwartz says.

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