The Mass General Center for Global Health Discovery Fellowship is a program that welcomes doctors from South Africa to Massachusetts General Hospital for intensive one-year trainings. The goal of the program is to help foster the development of South African health care leaders and increase the number of specialists serving rural communities in the country. The program, funded by the Discovery Foundation of South Africa, was established in partnership with Mass General’s Center for Global Health (CGH) in 2013.
Sumy Thomas, MD, Mass General’s 2021-2022 Center for Global Health Discovery Fellow, credits this unique training program with teaching her how to conduct high-quality research — and she has a research award to show for it: Dr. Thomas recently won the Janet W. MacArthur Award for Excellence in Clinical Research for her work as a young researcher.
Dr. Thomas spent the last year studying the impact of hormones on heart health in patients with HIV and looking for therapeutic drug targets to treat or even prevent heart disease.
Dr. Thomas is one of the youngest doctors to have been awarded the Discovery Foundation Fellowship, and she says it has played a pivotal role in teaching her the underpinnings of excellent research — how to develop a research design and protocols, analyze results and publish those findings in the wider medical community. “It’s not something that is really taught in medical school — you need to learn by doing,” says Dr. Thomas, “That’s exactly what this fellowship has done.”
Addressing the Need for Specialists in South Africa
Dr. Thomas shares CGH’s commitment to addressing health disparities around the world. As the daughter of high school teachers who taught in rural public schools, she took their example of serving poorer communities in the countryside — and the satisfaction they experienced in their work — to heart. She has spent her entire career in the public sector, bringing care to underserved patients.
There is a tremendous need for specialists and researchers in South Africa: there are fewer than 17 medical specialists per 100,000 people, compared to 274 per 100,000 in developed countries. “For instance, there are only 45 endocrinologists registered in South Africa, compared to more than 300 endocrinologists just in Boston alone,” says Dr. Thomas.
“Haiti, Uganda, Ukraine, South Africa — it’s been so enlightening to see that one [Center for Global Health] works all over the world!”
Sumy Thomas, MD
This is what the Discovery Fellowship works to address, and Dr. Thomas says she is looking forward to continuing her research when she returns to Baragwanath Hospital in South Africa, where she is an internist. “Bara,” as it is called, is the largest hospital in the global south and the third largest in the world, serving mostly rural, economically disadvantaged patients, a large percentage of whom have HIV as part of their diagnosis.
“I’m already planning a new project back home that thematically continues the research I’ve been doing here at Mass General,” says Dr. Thomas. “Most of the research into heart disease and HIV has been done in Western countries, so we need studies of populations in the global south to draw conclusions relevant to people in South Africa and other developing regions. My continued ties to my department here at Mass General will really help me in this work.”
Creating Global Connections
Dr. Thomas describes as “first rate” the mentorship she’s received from Suman Srinivasa, MD, MS, and Steven Grinspoon, MD, during her time with the Mass General Metabolism Unit. “They are so generous with their time; they continuously check in with me and offer teaching and guidance.” She says that being part of Mass General’s research community and also attending conferences have given her a tremendous community going forward. “These relationships will help with future collaborations to further this work in a global context, with benefits to all of us as we work together and share our findings,” she says.
She says she is very inspired by CGH and the work they do to address health disparities in contexts around the world. “Haiti, Uganda, Ukraine, South Africa — it’s been so enlightening to see that one Center works all over the world!”
Dr. Thomas returned to South Africa this fall and she likes being home. “South Africa is a wonderful country — our slogan is ‘we are a rainbow nation,’” she says. “The people are so joyful. When nurses start their shift at the hospital, they sing to the patients to establish a positive ambiance. It’s an amazing, beautiful place — everyone should visit!”