Physician Assistant Students Build Global Healthcare Skills in Ghana
December 4, 2023 — Completing clinical rotations on the way to earning a physician assistant (PA) master’s degree is always an intense and eye-opening experience. For four students in Marist’s PA master’s program, this experience went far beyond the average clinical training.
Caitlin Conner, Mbuyi Kalemba, Ryan Morris, and Aleisann Wolliaston are the first Marist cohort that chose to complete one of their required rotations in Ghana, exposing them to a variety of important technical and cultural skills that will enhance working in the U.S. healthcare system. All four are working toward earning their degrees in 2024. The experience is part of Marist’s collaboration with the University of Cape Coast (UCC), which immerses students in the heart of Ghana’s healthcare landscape.
“These rotations prepare students to be culturally aware, competent, and sensitive,” said Shirley Fletcher-Hall, Coordinator of Clinical Education. “They are intended to enhance the students’ education about healthcare disparities and adequately prepare them to interact with and treat patients of different ethnic backgrounds.”
The Ghana rotation was the fifth of nine total rotations that the students will complete as part of the PA master's degree. They each split their time between two hospitals in the region, where they assessed patients, participated in bedside procedures, and gained insights into the way healthcare works in the country.
From left to right: Aleisann Wolliaston, Ryan Morris, Caitlin Conner, and Mbuyi Kalemba. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.
Kalemba worked at the Trauma and Specialty Hospital in Winneba and the District Hospital in Twifo Praso. From assisting in C-sections to discussing treatment plans with providers, her time in Ghana was professionally enriching and personally fulfilling.
“I am from Africa and wanted to go back and really be entrenched and experience what healthcare is like there,” she said. “This was such a unique experience that many clinicians don’t get, and I think it broadens my perspective as a PA student and future PA.”
Mbuyi Kalemba stands outside the Trauma and Specialty Hospital in Winneba. Photo courtesy of Mbuyi Kalemba 'M24.
Conner, who earned a Master’s of Science in Public Health before enrolling in the PA program, said that her time at Cape Coast Teaching Hospital and St. Francis Xavier Hospital in Assin Fosu opened her up to the differences in medical practice compared to what she was used to in the United States.
“There were several things that stood out to me,” Conner said. “Antibiotics are available over the counter without a prescription, for example. There is also still a fairly large reliance on herbal medicine, and patients often delay care in order to try herbal medicines first or stop taking their prescribed medication in favor of herbal remedies.”
Caitlin Conner presents her experience and research findings at the Murray Student Center after returning to Marist’s Poughkeepsie campus. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.
Approaching these differences is part of what makes the Ghana experience so unique, and helps students better understand the global healthcare picture.
“In the USA, diagnostic and laboratory testing is readily available,” said Fletcher-Hall. “In Ghana, PA students rely on critical thinking to assess and diagnose their patients.”
Wolliaston worked in Family Medicine and found the experience to be a bridge between classroom knowledge and real-world application.
Aleisann Wolliaston (right) works at the trauma and specialist hospital in Winneba. Photo courtesy of Aleisann Wolliaston 'M24.
"I think experiences such as this one are important as a healthcare student or provider because it helps you develop that level of interprofessional relationship with other providers and helps you become culturally competent," Wolliaston said.
While learning about the specifics of medical practices, students also found opportunities to embody Marist’s commitment to community service in their time in Ghana.
Morris, who worked in the same hospitals as Conner, helped organize a medical supplies drive. Recognizing the disparities in resources, he mobilized efforts to collect donations, including $400 in cash, a new Automated External Defibrillator and various medical and school supplies.
Ryan Morris and Caitlin Conner with colleagues and medical supplies collected through their donation drive. Photo courtesy of Ryan Morris 'M24.
“As Marist students, and students in medicine, I feel we want to try and make a positive impact wherever we go and collecting donations was the least we could do,” Morris said. “Being the first cohort to participate in this rotation, it was also important to us that we expressed our gratitude for being given the opportunity to go the the Ghanaian hospitals and learn with their students.”
Beyond the medical setting, all four students were able to explore the region where they lived, visiting national parks and important historical areas as well as learning cultural traditions.
“The experience was amazing culturally,” said Kalemba. “Ghanaian people are very kind and welcoming and accepted us with open arms.”
Reflecting on their experience, each student unequivocally recommended the Ghana rotation to future PA students. Morris emphasized its unique blend of healthcare and cultural immersion: "I feel that opportunities to experience a culture as rich as Ghana’s, especially as intimately as we did, are rare yet wildly important for the cultivation of empathy and an open mind. Both of these are invaluable to the modern-day healthcare provider."
Marist aims to further develop its collaboration with University of Cape Coast, which according to the Times Higher Education is among Africa’s top universities.
“This partnership presents opportunities to work together on many levels, including faculty and student exchanges, joint research opportunities, academic programming, and more,” said Gavin Webb, Dean of International Programs. “The collaboration between our Physician Assistant Studies Departments is hopefully the first among many opportunities for this growing relationship between Marist and UCC.”