Botswana-UPenn Partnership Celebrating 10 Years

Ten years ago, the Botswana-UPenn Partnership began as a program training doctors and nurses treating HIV/AIDS patients. Now it also includes research, additional academic opportunities and telemedicine.

Harvey Friedman, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Penn Medicine and director of the Partnership, says when the Merck Company Foundation made antiretroviral drugs available to HIV/AIDS patients in Botswana, and joined with the Gates Foundation to help the African nation fight the disease, it asked Penn to help train the clinical providers.

Initially, Penn funded one doctor part-time. Today, there are 11 full-time physicians among 70 full-time staffers in the program. Most are citizens of Botswana.

The Partnership quickly expanded to include clinical research. “There are lots of complications from the disease,” Friedman explains. “One of the most prevalent is TB, the major cause of death in the country. Another is cervical cancer.”

Cell phone technology, or telemedicine, was a natural diagnostic evolution that Friedman credits to Penn dermatologist Carrie Kovarik. Telemedicine has been particularly helpful in treating skin rashes, another complication of HIV/AIDS.

Kovarik found she could help providers diagnose and treat rashes if she could see a picture. “In Botswana, the internet is not very good, but cell phones are everywhere, so I began to ask providers to send me the photos via cell phones,” she says.

Telemedicine is also central to detecting cervical cancer, says the Project’s in-country director Doreen Ramogola-Masire. “The country is vast, and skilled physicians are few. We can’t see every woman who has cervical irregularities, but lower cadre health care workers can use cell phones to send pictures and get feedback for management.”

Additionally, Penn is helping to support the development of Botswana’s new medical school, whose third class begins in August. Friedman explains: “It took six or seven years until the pieces were in place, but two years ago, I watched one of the teachers giving the first lecture to the first class.”

While the Partnership began with the Perelman School of Medicine, it now includes schools across campus. This summer, more than a dozen students from the School of Arts and Sciences, Law, Nursing, Penn Vet, Penn Dental and Wharton are interning in Botswana.

Vet student Ben Golas is on a team that inadvertently snared a cheetah in a leopard trap. Read about his adventures on his blog; SAS’s José Robles is working to raise funds to help a daycare center provide better services and expand enrollment; and a contingent of nursing students is participating in a six-week community health course this summer.

Friedman sees the Partnership’s future as both bright and challenging. “One of the biggest challenges is culture,” he observes. “We’re used to doing things a certain way; it has been a challenge to learn and work across cultures.”

The Botswana-UPenn Partnership will celebrate its 10th year with an anniversary symposium on Oct. 14. Download additional information at the Partnership website, and find photos of the Partnership online.

Text by Julie McWilliams
Video by Kurtis Sensenig