Women physicians key to perinatal care

Part 1: Giving Tanzanian women access to medicine as well as medical careers

“I live in a city this time around, and the hospital I work in feels more Western: We have computers, radiology, and even a resident doctor teaching program,” explains Dr. Joey Banks, an American family practice physician working in Arusha, Tanzania. “However, we also lack most medications, have limited surgery instruments, have very few physicians, and no paper towels.”

“Yes, even though we have computers, we have days with no soap or paper towels.”

While the limits of practicing medicine in many parts of the world can be a serious reality check for Westerners, Dr. Banks tries to embrace some of the challenges she encounters.

“I have to remember that limited medications can do some good,” she says, “that I need to use my physical exam skills more, and that I need to think outside the box so I don't miss a serious diagnosis.”

For women in Tanzania, access to basic health screenings and prenatal care are slight if not impossible, but Dr. Banks sees reasons to cheer.

“We have very limited cervical cancer screening and breast cancer screening,” she says. “But I have been involved some with a great local U.S. based NGO (non-governmental organization) called Grounds for Health that is making slow but efficient changes while working with the government to improve cervical cancer screening in Tanzania.”

But access to prenatal care is still far below the Western world, as Tanzanian women have a 1 in 23 chance of dying from childbirth, according to UNICEF statistics.

“I have been teaching some emergency obstetrical classes,” Dr. Banks says, “since over 50 percent of African woman do not have providers that can handle basic and common emergency situations during deliveries.”

Dr. Banks credits midwives as being eager to learn how to prevent and treat emergencies, “since they do the majority of the delivery assistance.” But as the lone female at her hospital’s physician meetings, she sees a real need for more girls to be trained in health sciences.

Often female medical students who show promise to become physicians are lured to the richer African hospitals, Dr. Banks says. This leaves rural facilities in dire need of women physicians.

“In many cultures and religions, families will not let a male physician examine a female family member. So we definitely need more female physicians and medical officers.” Medical officers are similar to physician assistants but can practice on their own in Tanzania.

“More women are entering into medicine, but many quit once they are raising children,” Dr. Banks says. “We have to see what the new, younger generation offers to Tanzania. For all of Africa, women doctors are highly sought after – and highly valued.”

Introduction: U.N.'s International Women's Day

Part 2: A documentary filmmaker’s exploration of ‘safe motherhood’

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