Mideast doctors seek better expertise abroad
Washington - Lack of technology, research facilities and up-to-date education are among the challenges facing medical doctors in the Middle East, prompting many to seek professional fulfilment and advancement abroad.
However, for a large number, ties to their countries of origin remain strong as they share their knowledge and benefit their fellow citizens at a time when conflicts have raised an urgent need for medical expertise.
Some Arab doctors stressed the advantages of practicing in the United States, which they say helped them fare much better than peers who stayed in their home countries.
“Practicing medicine as a profession is more rewarding in the US than in any other place on the globe. If you’re trying to be a researcher or advance in your career as a scientist or a provider of a certain service, it’s fair to say it’s open and limitless here,” said Dr Hassan Fehmi, a Lebanese nephrologist in Detroit, Michigan.
Fehmi said the educational systems in the United States and Europe, unlike those in Arab countries, are designed to push professionals to constantly upgrade knowledge and practice. “In medicine, for instance, you always have to study and keep up with most recent advances,” he said. “It is about showing in an objective way that you’re capable of doing what you think you can.
“In the Arab world, the system is not as favourable in providing this knowledge. Many physicians end up going abroad and attend conferences in the EU or US to earn continuous medical credit and advance their knowledge.”
Fehmi, who learned general medicine in Baghdad at the height of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, moved to the United States 30 years ago. “I’m from northern Lebanon. During the war I was cut off from Beirut where universities are,” he said. “Going to Baghdad was easier than going to Beirut at the time.”
For Dr Ahmad Tarakji, a Syrian who studied medicine in Aleppo University before specialising in cardiothoracic surgery in the United States, a major handicap he faced in Syria was lack of advanced technology and resources.
“Topics are limited and the quality is not so high. Physicians who go to medical conferences in the Middle East from North America openly say they’re not as up-to-date as they need to be,” Tarakji said from his practice in California.
Medical schools in countries that insist on teaching medicine in Arabic, as is the case in Syria, often put their students at a linguistic disadvantage when they try to update their knowledge from sources published in other languages. “Generally, you have to know at least one other foreign language to stay updated on the latest research,” added Tarakji, who heads the Syrian American Medical Society.
Medical students in the Middle East often aspire to emigrate to the West to practice. Pre-war Syria was, at times, the top exporter of doctors to the United States, according to US State Department statistics.
Many Arab doctors in the United States have kept up relations with medical circles in the Middle East. Tarakji has been providing humanitarian and medical aid to Syrians since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. He has often travelled to Syria to train clinicians.
Fehmi has been active with the National Arab American Medical Association (NAAMA), a group of physicians of Arab origin. “We try to continuously stay in touch with our country of origin whenever we can,” he said.
“We routinely have doctors visiting Arab countries to conduct seminars and educational advances. We have doctors who have gone to Palestine where we support an emergency room and make sure it’s well supplied always. We had several missions to the Palestinian refugee camps and unfortunately more recently to the Syrian refugees, routinely conducting missions in clinics and hospitals.
“We do what we do as physicians because we like to be of help to our community and the countries we came from. That’s the other part of fulfilment a physician gets.”
One of the most contentious issues that physicians in the United States face, however, is the threat of malpractice lawsuits that can potentially end a doctor’s career.
“Many times you find yourself requesting more testing and more frequent evaluations based on the fact that there’s always a fear of potential liability,” Tarakji noted.
With all the advantages of practicing medicine in the United States, one thing stands out as a clear advantage for patients and practitioners in the Middle East and North Africa: a strong family and community network helps patients convalesce and acts as a low-cost, but highly effective, extension to medical care.
“Each patient will have many people around them to help with recovery and making food and psychological support. That’s not available in North America, not even with the elderly,” Tarakji said.
Arab physicians agree that professionally the West is a rewarding place where “one feels a sense of fulfilment”.
“Yet, at the end of the day, you cannot lose touch with where you come from,” Fehmi said. “That is why many of us Arab doctors contribute back home. It is about a sense of fulfilment to be able to provide to those you grew up with and made you who you are.”