The Humanitarian Side of Neurology

As a neurologist, you´ll have the opportunity to get involved in a number of humanitarian missions, whether for a short amount of time, or for an extended period at the beginning or during the later stages of your career. You could even choose to practice in a developing country if you wanted to, and you have no family members that really need you to stay in your home country. There are, however, better ways than others to get involved. In this article, we´ll cover a few ways, a few reasons why you´d want to do humanitarian work and some inspiring individuals to show you the sort of experience that can be achieved.

Inspiring Neurologists

You are probably not going to do humanitarian work for an award, but there are certainly some inspiring people who have won awards for their efforts.

In 2015, Dr. Babar Kockhar, MD, MBA, received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the Muscular Dystrophy Association at their Annual Black and Blue Ball. The award honors individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to patients with neuromuscular disorders, and improved patients´ and families´ quality of life.

Dr. Khokhar, the assistant professor of neurology, created a dedicated clinic at Yale for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He also set up a support group for ALS patients at Gaylord Hospital. He makes home visits to patients that are no longer ambulatory and volunteers at an MDA camp for children.

Dr. Khokhar joined the Department of Neurology after completing a neurology residency and fellowship in Neuromuscular Medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital and West Haven VA Medical Center.

He is the Medical Director of Ambulatory Services for Yale Medical Group (YMG) and leads their clinical optimization división, too. He´s also the Director of the Neurology Outpatient Clinics, Chief of the General Neurology Division, and the Director of the Yale MDA-ALS Clinic. His clinical interests include motor neuron disorders and general neurologic diseases.

Dr. Richard Tallman was recognized as Physician Recipient of the 2015 Frist Humanitarian Award at the end of the year. This Austin Diagnostic Clinic neurologist joined the Clinic in 1984. His specialty focus is neuro-oncology, multiple schlerosis and neuromuscular disease.

Dr. Tallman´s work with the Travis County Medical Society’s Project Access Program, a coordinated system of volunteer physician care, hospital care, diagnostic services and medications assistance for the low-income and/or uninsured of Travis County impressed many.  

Project Access´ mission is to provide access to appropriate health care services for uninsured people in Travis County. The incomes of the community there are at or below 200% of the Federal poverty level. Dr. Tallman also served as a former member of the Indigent Care Collaborative – a community non-profit group aiming to bring care to the uninsured in Central Texas.

Dr. Tallman was also recognized as an Austin Monthly Top Doctor for two years running and as Texas Monthly Super Doctor from 2004 until 2006 and again in 2010 and 2014.

Formal Opportunities for Neurology Residents to Study Global and Humanitarian Health

How can you get involved in humanitarian work? Nowadays, there´s even a track to get you trained up for the work during your residency.

Aaron Berkowitz, MD, PhD, Tracey Milligan, MD and Tracey Cho, MD, announced that there is a new track for neurology residents in the The American Academy of Neurology in 2015.

They argue that many residents that participate in rotations abroad are oftentimes inadequately prepared and poorly supported. A new track in global and humanitarian health has been developed to provide a structured curriculum designed for resource-limited setting, which includes components such as:

  • Mentored, longitudinal experience in a resource-limited setting abroad that can be beneficial to both the host institution and the resident.
  • Mentored, longitudinal experience in a similar but domestic setting.
  • A mentored education, research or quality improvement project in collaboration with a foreign or national institution where the experience has been sought.
  • Participation in academic global health conferences, lectures and other educational activities outside of those related to neurology.

The authors report that residents will be paired with a mentor at the beginning of their second year of their neurology residency, in order to develop a 2-year plan to achieve the above goals.

Funding support comes from within the residency program, or from mentor support if residents are working on a particular project that already has funding. Here´s more detail about the track.

Iraqi Refugees at High Risk of Neurologic Disorders

Approximately 1 in 6 Iraqi refugees that seek medical assistance is diagnosed with a neurologic disorder, according to a study presented at the 63rd Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. The refugees with a neurologic diagnosis self-reported a history of torture 60 times more often that those without a neurologic diagnosis.

“The objective of this study was to look specifically among those people receiving health and humanitarian assistance and to determine their burden of neurologic disorders and what specifically those disorders are,” said Dr. Mateen, a neurologist and student in International Health at John Hopkins University in Baltimore.

There were 36,953 registered Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers in Jordan in 2010; neurologic diagnoses were uncovered in 1,295 refugees, which accounts for 4% of all registered Iraqi refugees. “The total data set had a mean age of 37 years, and 49% were male,” Dr. Mateen stated. “Among the people studied that had neurologic disorders, the mean age was slightly higher at 43 years old, and 46% were female.”

Some of the most common neurologic diagnoses were back pain (30.5%), headache (13.4%), epilepsy (12.9%), nerve root and plexus disorders (10.0%), cervical disc disorders (7.2%), and other cerebrovascular disease (4.3%). A total of 7,642 received health assistance, 17% of whom sought medical assistance for neurologic disorders.

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“Approximately one in 20 Iraqi refugees with a neurologic diagnosis self-reported a history of torture, which was higher than Iraqi refugees without a history of torture,” Dr. Mateen reported. Just 3.1% of refugees without a history of torture also had a neurologic diagnosis. Those with a history of torture were 1.6 times more likely to have a neurologic diagnosis.

“Neurologic disorders have rarely been described in displaced persons but likely pose a significant and growing burden of disease on a global scale,” noted Dr. Mateen.

This study, she emphasized, is the first of its kind and involved a large amount of data. The organization they were working with, RAIS, is also expected to expand throughout the Middle East and throughout northern Africa, as conflict continues in the regions. For more information on this study, see the Neurology Reviews website.

There are many ways to get involved in humanitarian work, whether it´s through your residency program, an organization in a conflict zone, or at home, serving the underprivileged people in your own country. But first things first! Getting onto the right residency program is critical. Let us know if you´d like us to help you write your personal statement, and do real justice to your motivations, experiences and education.

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