Fitsum Tilahun is a physician based in New York. He is a co-founder of Yetenaweg, a self-described “evidence-based medical information” platform targeting Ethiopians around the world. Here, he talks to Samuel Getachew of The Reporter about the challenges of being a doctor in Ethiopia and where he wants to take the platform that informs ordinary people with basic medical knowledge.
Tell me about you
I am a certified physician by the American Board of Internal Medicine and Nephrology. I am currently doing transplant nephrology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, USA. I am married to my college sweetheart and we have two beautiful children who are now five and two years old. We live in New York and my wife is also a doctor, like me, and is training in Internal Medicine in New York. I was born in Adola, in the Oromia region. My parents are still there; my nostalgia and my dream is to live there again.
What were the highlights of your journey to becoming a doctor?
I don’t think being a doctor is any different from any other job, as long as you like what you do. Being a doctor may be a bit different than dealing with a human being. You certainly need hard work and a bit of luck to become a doctor in Ethiopia. There were very few medical schools, at least when I joined the medical school.
After high school at Lideta Catholic Cathedral school (that’s why I said you need a bit of luck) I went to Tikur Anbessa Medical School, I graduated in 2010 and then went to work as a junior doctor at the hospital of Dodola from 2010 to 2012.. I also served as the first medical director of the hospital.
I and a group of friends were the first doctors in the area and we were able to initiate many reforms and started new programs such as the start of the operating room in the hospital. We also started a community outreach program to combat diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis in the area. We also established the Dodola Diabetic Association and were able to administer insulin free of charge to patients under the age of eighteen for the two years we worked there.
My years at Dodola Hospital showed me the challenges and also the opportunities before you for change. To this day, that experience has been one of the most important moments in my professional career.
You have seen some of the challenges that doctors in Ethiopia face. What have you personally observed?
In Ethiopia particularly, there are a multitude of challenges. The country’s medical schools expanded from 3 to 4 to more than 30 without a commensurate increase in resources and manpower, and that can affect the quality of medical education. Thousands of physicians graduate each year without adequate employment opportunities, despite the fact that, as a nation, we have one of the lowest ratios of physicians to population.
The additional job and educational opportunities limited by favoritism and our racial politics have certainly demoralized the new generation. This generation also has to grapple with and fight massive online misinformation and mistrust of the medical system. Health professionals play a key role in creating and maintaining a healthy society and I hope that we all understand the value and sacrifices these young doctors make and appreciate their contribution.
How has the COVID-19 challenge been?
COVID-19 remains a risk in Ethiopia. We have very limited capacity for the intensive and high-level care required by patients with severe COVID-19 infection. Blockades, like the early days of the pandemic, may be impossible, but we can still make universal face masks and physical distancing as much as possible and limit transmission to ease the burden on our healthcare system. Hopefully in the next year we will be able to acquire Vaccine through the global partnership with WHO and at least cover our most vulnerable groups.
Tell me about Yetenaweg?
This is a platform that my good friend and I, Dr. Ermias Kacha, who is also an Ethiopian-born doctor in New York, created. It is a volunteer-based platform run by physicians working both at home and abroad, to fill the gap in evidence-based medical information. We started almost a year ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic and were able to have a strong online presence to be a trusted source for Ethiopians who have health related questions, on the Podcast, website (at Yetenaweg.com) and different social media pages. Somehow away from home, this was a way to contribute to our country and our people.
We hope that, through our activity, we can include more health professionals. We can do a lot together and yetenaweg has created a network platform for thousands of doctors on different social networks and has become a trusted source of health information for almost 50,000 people.
How has parenting changed you as a doctor and as an activist?
I became a father five years ago, and now I am the father of two daughters, Abem (which means gift from God in Guragigna), who is five years old, and Zema, who is now two. Abem is very curious and always asks me what I do at work. She watches Peppa Pig (Kids Show) and has an ideal doctor who fixes everything in her mind … and I try to live up to her expectations of what a doctor is and does at work, in everything I do, how I behave when I wake up and I eat. I always want to be an example to them and that of course will make me a better doctor.
More than anything else, I want to be a good parent; Everything else is secondary.
What advice would you give young doctors and medical students?
Discipline beats talent! Work hard, don’t give up, and connect with people. Also, learn from those around you, as books can only take you the same amount. God bless Ethiopia!