Report from Iraqi Kurdistan part 1- Peace Through Healthcare

Early Sunday morning I returned home from my 15th trip to promote medical education in women’s health within the borders of Iraq “Peace through Healthcare” initiatives such as this one are important. Each visit to the region has been to provide medical education in women’s health and maternal safety. Even combatants can often agree that healthy mothers and babies are important, so this topic has the potential to help opposing factions find some common ground.

In the past I’ve taught in Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra, Iraq. This meeting was in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. The meeting was a conference sponsored by the Kurdistan Iraq Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology (KISOG). In 2007, Dr. Randall Williams and I visited Erbil and encouraged the local providers to form an organization that would advocate for women’s health as a first step. They started KISOG a few years later, and the organization has since garnered significant support. KISOG hosted this conference with 500 attendees; the facilities and format compare favorably with conferences held in the United States (US).

The team that I usually travel with includes Randall Williams and also United Kingdom (UK) physician educators Charles Cox and Felicity Platt. As you would expect, US and UK medical systems have some differences. I find that it’s informative to point out to the healthcare leaders in Iraq that, as they design new policies, there are many ways to address the delivery of care. It is wise to take the best ideas from multiple systems as change is implemented.

Doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology in Iraqi Kurdistan currently feel overwhelmed. An influx of 1.5 million refugees have arrived in this region with only 5 million people; the overall area is about a fourth the size of Tennessee.

Ten percent of the government’s budget is directed toward refugee care, but even without the challenge of assimilating 1.5 million refugees, the government would still face severe budgetary issues due to the severe drop in oil revenue since 2014. Kurdish officials also feel that support from the central Iraqi government has been withheld. Pay has been cut for healthcare employees ranging from the janitors to the dean of the medical school, and the doctors report they are not paid for the care of “government” patients and can only afford to provide for their families by additional work in private practice.

While our time there was short, our team and the speakers from other countries were able to bring education to the lives of the women’s health physicians in attendance. With education and fellowship comes hope, and I detected more smiles on day three than I did on day one. Hope is an important component of long-term stability. It is very gratifying to have to opportunity to teach and interact with colleagues in Iraqi Kurdistan and I am grateful for their invitation to meaningfully participate in the rebuilding of their healthcare system and thereby strengthening the growth of their democracy.