On April 28, Dr. Paul Farmer stood before a microphone in a large conference room in Haiti's University Hospital.

Several days before, bomb blasts at the marathon in Boston, Massachusetts, had killed three people, but not a single person who made it to a hospital died. In that grim emergency, teaching hospitals made a difference, Farmer told the crowd.

“I love working at a great Boston teaching hospital, Brigham and Women’s. I love being able to train the next generation of physicians and nurses. And I want Haiti to have something like it, too,” Farmer said.

This month, University Hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti, took a significant step toward becoming the teaching hospital envisioned after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, which devastated the country’s already-fragile medical infrastructure. On Oct. 1, the hospital’s first medical residents—all young Haitian doctors—began hands-on training in pediatrics, general surgery, and internal medicine.

The application process was intensive and merit-based: 238 people applied and took an entrance exam. Of those, 45 were interviewed, and 14 were selected. Class members hail from all over Haiti. Some studied at Haiti’s state medical school or private schools in Port-au-Prince; others went to the Dominican Republic. Some just graduated from medical school and completed their social service year; others have been practicing for a few years. By coincidence, the class is evenly split between men and women.

Dr. Jean-Louis Willy Fils, 29, from the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, has wanted to be a doctor for as long as he can remember. He describes surgery as his “true vocation,” so to be selected for a University Hospital residency was more than he hoped for.

“One year ago, I couldn't have even imagined learning surgery in a hospital with an international standard of quality, for the good reason that such a hospital didn't exist in the country yet,” Fils said. “That's the proof that great things can be done in Haiti.”

Over the next several years, these 14 doctors will receive instruction from Haitian and foreign physicians—some of whom are faculty at the same teaching hospital where Farmer trained and now teaches. The curriculum for their training was developed through special working groups and designed to follow the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education International’s (ACGME-I) standards.

After completing orientation this month, residents will begin caring for patients as well as rotating in departments such as emergency medicine, TB/HIV clinic, and oncology. Each day, they will spend an hour in special education sessions for residents, and once or twice per week they will be on call throughout the night. They will also conduct research to improve the quality of care. The ACGME-I guidelines require they work no more than 80 hours a week, but they’ll probably come close.

"The residency program at University Hospital represents the most serious attempt, to my knowledge and during my lifetime, to systematically create a critical mass of Haitian physician specialists that will have the opportunity to be fully useful to all Haitians," said Dr. Paul Pierre, PIH senior advisor. He added that he and his physician colleagues have traditionally questioned the poor outcomes of Haiti's health sector, but now feel questioned themselves about their responsibility to improve health care in Haiti. "University Hospital and its new residency program stand as formidable evidence of the efforts that young Haitian health professionals are making to restore, in a sustainable way, hope and dignity in the future of health in Haiti."

As new classes of residents begin each fall, the number of physician trainees will double and triple. And the programs will expand to include other health professionals, such as nurse anesthetists and other nurse specialists, as well as more medical specialties—such as emergency medicine—which would be the first such training program in the country.

In addition to hands-on training, the curriculum includes lessons on social medicine and the root causes of disease, such as poverty, which have been part of PIH’s work since its early days in Haiti. The programs are designed to train and retain a new generation of doctors to the poor who work outside of Port-au-Prince, the traditional mecca for medical training.

“We envision a workforce of doctors, nurses, and other health professionals who are driven by medical excellence and committed to high-quality care for all Haitians,” said Michelle Morse, PIH deputy chief medical officer for Haiti. “The start of these residencies brings Haiti one step closer to this vision.”

Too little training, too few doctors

The American Medical Association describes the training for doctors in the United States as “lengthy.”

Four years of college. Four years at medical school. Up to seven years in a residency program and three years in a fellowship for specialists, who make up 95 percent of American doctors.

Add it up, and many doctors have had more than a decade of medical training. Much of it takes place through hands-on coaching from senior physicians in teaching hospitals with all the latest diagnostics and treatments.

In Haiti, one reason for needless sickness and death is the lack of trained professionals to provide health care. There are only 25 physicians per 100,000 Haitians. The United States has more than tenfold that number: 280 doctors for every 100,000 Americans.

In Haiti, half of doctors are generalists who have completed medical school and a social service year but no specialty training. Each year, about  450  graduating doctors compete for only about 150 residency positions.

Those residencies allow Haitian doctors to become specialists in fields such as internal medicine and pediatrics, but even those additional years of training are wanting. Most residencies are based in hospitals that are ill-equipped and under-staffed, with limited supervision by experienced doctors. Attending physicians are underpaid, leading many to spend their time in private practice, instead of teaching physician trainees.

PIH conducted a survey of Haitian residency programs to better understand the country's medical education needs. The survey found that 55 percent of residents don’t have Internet access at the hospitals where they work, and 80 percent of the programs do not have an exit exam for residents.

“These residencies are operating in hospitals that are severely short on resources, from staff to equipment,” Morse said. “University Hospital has electronic medical records, an emergency department, a CT scanner—it allows us to have a whole new level of quality care and training at a hospital with the appropriate resources.”

Double brain drain

Dr. Ketly Altenor, 27, graduated from Haiti's state medical school and is now a pediatrics resident at University Hospital. Photo: courtesy of Ketly Altenor

The lack of opportunities leads many young Haitian doctors to seek training and employment in other countries, causing a brain drain in the health workforce. A staggering 80 percent of all physicians trained in Haiti leave within five years of graduation to practice abroad. Of the doctors who stay in Haiti, most practice in Port-au-Prince, which makes it difficult for rural people to access care. The medical education programs at University Hospital aim to slow or even reverse that double brain drain—from rural to Port-au-Prince or abroad—by encouraging talented young doctors to train in Haiti and stay there to practice medicine.

Dr. Ketly Altenor, 27, hopes to return to St. Marc, Haiti, to practice medicine. Growing up there, Altenor lost her father at 12 years old, and her mother supported the family as a street vendor. Despite her family’s poverty, Altenor excelled in school and earned a competitive spot at the state medical school. She graduated with the support of a scholarship from the nonprofit Haitian Education and Leadership Program, which provided housing, a stipend, and mentorship. She was accepted into the pediatrics residency at University Hospital after graduating from medical school.

“After my training I intend to return to work in my hometown, where there aren’t enough pediatricians,” Altenor said. “I will try to extend pediatric care to remote areas of the Artibonite region. I want to work in social medicine and really help people.”

Though University Hospital’s medical residencies are just starting, other training activities have occurred since the hospital opened. Since Farmer delivered his talk, or “grand rounds,” to inaugurate medical education at University Hospital, staff have participated in daily continuing education sessions to improve care, from training on using ultrasound to sessions to help faculty become better teachers.

As Farmer said, “University Hospital was built to be a teaching hospital because the hypothesis, here, is that the quality of medical care will be improved whenever training and research—the ‘feedback loops’ that allow us to learn—occur in tandem with compassionate care.”