Fitsum Tilahun is a medical doctor based in New York. He is a co-founder of Yetenaweg, a self-described “evidence-based medical information” platform targeting Ethiopians everywhere. Here, he converses with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his on the challenges of being a doctor in Ethiopia and where he wants to take the platform that informs everyday people with basic medical knowledge.
Tell me about yourself
I am a board-certified physician in the American Board of Internal medicine and Nephrology. I am currently doing Transplant nephrology at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia, in the United States. I am married to my college sweetheart and we have two beautiful children who are now five and two. We live in New York and my wife is also a physician like myself doing her training on Internal Medicine in New York. I was born in Adola, in Oromia region. My parents are still there; my nostalgia and my dream is to go back and live there.
What were the highlights on your journey to become a medical doctor?
I don’t think being a doctor is any different from any other job, as long as you like what you do. May be being a physician is a little different as you deal with a human being. No doubt you need hard work and a little bit of luck to become a physician in Ethiopia. There were very few medical schools, at least when I joined medical school.
After high school in Lideta Catholic Cathedral school (that is why I said you need a little bit of luck) I went to Tikur Anbessa Medical School, graduated in 2010, and then went to work as a junior physician in Dodola hospital from 2010-2012. I also served as the first Medical Director of the hospital.
I and a group of my friends were the first physicians to the area and we were able to initiate a lot of reforms and we started new programs like starting Operation Theatre in the hospital. We also started a community outreach program to combat diseases like HIV and TB in the area. We also established the Dodola Diabetic Association and we were able to deliver Insulin free of charge to patients under eighteen within the two years we worked there.
My years in Dodola hospital showed me the challenges and also the opportunities before you in effecting change. To this day, that experience has been one of the most important times in my professional career.
You have seen some of the challenges doctors in Ethiopia face. What have you observed personally?
Particularly in Ethiopia, there are a multitude of challenges. Medical schools in the country expanded from 3-4 to more than 30 without a proportional increase in resources and manpower and that may affect the quality of medical education. Thousands of medical doctors graduate every year without proper employment opportunities – that despite us as a nation having one of the lowest doctor/population ratios.
Working and further educational opportunities limited by favoritism and our racial politics have certainly demoralized the new generation. This generation also has to contend and fight with massive online misinformation and distrust of the medical system. Health professionals play a key role in creating and maintaining a healthy society and I hope we all understand the value and the sacrifices these young physicians make and appreciate their contribution.
How has the COVID-19 challenge been?
COVID-19 is still a risk in Ethiopia. We have very limited capacity for intensive and high-level care that patients with severe COVID-19 infection require. Lockdowns, like the early days of the pandemic, may be impossible but we can still do universal facial mask and physical distancing as much as possible and limit the transmission to ease the burden on our health care 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 me and my good friend Dr. Ermias Kacha – who is also an Ethiopian Born physician in New York- created. It’s a volunteer-based platform run by physicians working both at home and abroad, to fill the void in evidence-based medical information. We started almost a year ago, right before the COVID-19 pandemic and we were able to have a strong online presence to be a reliable source for Ethiopians who have health-related questions – on Podcast, website (at Yetenaweg.com), and different social media pages. Somehow far from home, this was a way for us to contribute something to our country and our people.
We hope, through our activity, we will be able to include more health care professionals. There is a lot we can do together and yetenaweg has created a networking platform for thousands of physicians on different social media networks and has become a reliable source of health information for almost 50,000 people
How has fatherhood changed you as a physician as well as an activist?
I became a father five years ago, and now I am a father of 2 daughters Abem ( it means God’s gift in guragigna ) who is five, and Zema who is 2 years old now. Abem is very curious and always asks me about 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 to her expectation of what a doctor is and does at work, in everything I do – how I behave when I wake up and how I eat. I always want to be an example for them and that, of course, will make me a better physician.
More than anything else, I want to be a good father; everything else is secondary.
What advice do you have for young physicians and medical students?
Discipline beats talent! Work hard, don’t give up, and connect with people. As well, learn from those around you as books can only take you as much. God Bless Ethiopia!