A new Department of Family and Community Medicine (DFCM) elective offers University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) students the opportunity to broaden their clinical experience like never before — with a clinical rotation 7,500 miles away from Baltimore in Kenya. Through this elective, students gain the rare opportunity to observe the differences in and disparities between American and Kenyan health systems — and see the unique contribution that a family and community medicine education can make in addressing these disparities.
The department’s new Kenya elective provides a four-week rotation at AIC Litein Hospital, a medium-sized, church-run hospital in Litein, Kenya, serving a regional population of about 600,000. UMSOM medical students accepted to this rotation spend a week each in medicine, surgery, pediatrics, and OB/GYN services.
Kenyan and American faculty members supervise each student, who see patients together with a translator. Students also study required texts on tropical medicine, East African history, and global health while participating in weekly educational sessions with DFCM residents and are expected to make one presentation to all students and interns at the hospital about a topic of interest to them.
‘Completely Unique Experience’
Why travel such a distance for a family medicine elective? For Katherine Jacobson, MD, FAAFP, assistant professor of family and community medicine, the answer is simple.
“It’s a completely unique experience to be there,” says Jacobson, the department’s director of medical student education and family medicine clerkship director.
She points out that for medical students planning a career in global health, “there’s no better experience for family medicine trainees than to go work within a resource-limited setting, where they can build a more robust skill set in managing whatever emergencies walk in the door.”
UMSOM medical students largely transition from didactic to experiential learning by the close of their second year. Their core clinical rotations through UMSOM’s academic departments, including DFCM, give them a taste of various medical specialties. UMSOM offers other international electives, such as Energizing Gastroenterology Development in Rwanda, a four-week course that includes two weeks of international clinical GI experience in Rwanda, and Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine, an elective with Institute of Human Virology faculty members at the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia.
In designing the new elective with Matthew Loftus, MD ’11, who at the time was the program coordinator for the Kabarak University Family Medicine Residency at AIC Litein Hospital, Jacobson soon realized the high cost of traveling to Kenya could prevent many medical students from participating.
In search of financial support, she reached out to the University of Maryland, Baltimore Center for Global Engagement (CGE), the campus hub for interprofessional global health and education. Last year, CGE granted funding for four students to attend the Kenya elective.
Making a Difference
The first student to travel to Kenya was Ryan Thompson, MD ’22, an ophthalmology resident at UMSOM. Through a family connection, Thompson met and was mentored by Loftus while an undergraduate.
“I always had wanted to work with Dr. Loftus in Kenya,” Thompson said. “So when I was accepted at UMSOM and learned about the Kenya elective, the stars all kind of aligned.”
Thompson called his four-week rotation at AIC Litein Hospital in 2022 “a wonderful experience.”
“There were such wonderful and generous teachers there who really seemed to enjoy having students who wanted to learn,” he said. “The ophthalmology clinic in particular was special for me because it just felt like it was where I needed to be. It was a confirmation emotionally and academically that this is the exact type of work I want for my career.”
Thompson says he can see himself returning to Litein to practice after completing his residency.
“I can make a lot of difference in this community that needs ophthalmologists,” he said. “Whether or not it’s my actual calling in life, I certainly feel like Kenya is where I see myself fitting in like a puzzle piece.”