Centra neurosurgeon shares view on medical missions with student-doctors

Shelley Andrews :: LUCOM Marketing and PR | Nov 24, 2015

Dilantha Ellegala, M.D., visits LUCOMAside from the impressive accomplishments leading up to his current position as neurosurgeon/medical director at Centra Brain and Spine Institute, Dilantha Ellegala, M.D., also has a passion that mirrors the mission of Liberty University College of Osteopathic Medicine (LUCOM):  serving the underserved.

In a presentation to LUCOM student-doctors on Nov. 13, Dr. Ellegala talked about his connection to Tanzania. He visited the East African country following his grueling years as a resident at the University of Virginia.

“If you look at the underserved community, once you leave our borders, it gets worse,” said Dr. Ellegala.

Dr. Ellegala ended up at a Tanzanian hospital in the small town of Haydom. The 450-bed facility serves a population of about two million people. The doctor/patient ratio in that part of the world is 1:50,000.

Wanting to change those numbers, Dr. Ellegala started to take a closer look at the traditional medical missions model that revolves around a short-term visit and focuses on treatment rather than training.

“I would argue to everyone in this room that [a short-term visit] does more harm than good. It’s probably more for our own benefit than the countries where we are going,” said Dr. Ellegala.

In his experience in Tanzania, Dr. Ellegala noticed the involvement of American doctors would often disenfranchise the local health care workers.

“The solution to the problem has existed all along. It isn’t us, the visiting doctors. It’s the local staff,” said Dr. Ellegala.

Dr. Ellegala believes teaching local health care workers helps create a more viable health system in struggling countries like Tanzania. But his model doesn’t stop there. After teaching one person, the next step is teaching that person how teach others.

“Relationships are the key. You have to develop a relationship with the person you are training and with the community you are in,” said Dr. Ellegala. “Only with that relationship can a true transference of knowledge occur.”

Dr. Ellegala and his wife, a pediatrician he met and married while in Tanzania, started a non-profit in the U.S. called Madaktari. Its mission is “to advance medical expertise and care in Tanzania through the training and education of local medical personnel.”

“It’s not just about teaching someone neurosurgery. It’s saying to someone anything is possible. If you can do neurosurgery in a remote hospital, what can you not do?” said Dr. Ellegala.

LUCOM is developing clinical rotation sites for student-doctors and faculty in Guatemala, El Salvador and the Philippines. Part of the goal in establishing the sites is to enhance the work of local physicians in those regions.