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From Tower Grove dream to reality: Wash U med students open clinic in rural Uganda

Washington University medical student Jae Lee speaks at the opening of the Empower Through Health clinic in Mpunde, Uganda
Empower Through Health
Washington University medical student Jae Lee speaks at the opening of the Empower Through Health clinic in Mpunde, Uganda.

A new clinic in a remote Ugandan village has its roots in St. Louis.

The clinic in the rural village of Mpunde is the brainchild of two Washington University medical school students, who started the nonprofit Empower Through Health after researching stomach ulcers in Ugandans.

Medical students Jae Lee and Gautam Adusumilli founded the community health center after Lee's many trips to the East African country of Uganda to research malaria and other health problems.

In November, the one-year-old nonprofit opened a small clinic, which serves more than 20,000 people in the village in the rural western part of the country. It will provide basic health care to people who might otherwise need to spend a month’s income to travel to a doctor.

In 2017, Lee and Adusumilli were investigating the prevalence of dyspepsia — a gastrointestinal infection — in Ugandans. Lee had recently been to the country to study how widespread the disease was. His field research was full of notes of some people’s desperate situations, such as one instance of people eating leaves when they couldn’t find food.

Lee and Adusumilli dreamed up the clinic while studying in a Tower Grove coffee shop.

“We were at MoKaBe's and thought, ‘This is really bad, and we should do something about it,’” Lee said. “Why don’t we start a hospital? That was the beginning of Empower Through Health.”

Empower Through Health has a $39,000 budget to operate the clinic and fund research and other projects in 2019. The clinic will provide immunizations, HIV counseling, STD treatment and family planning to a population that needs it desperately, he said. The two founders thought providing general health care and screenings was the way they could reach the most people, Lee said.

“People are dying on a weekly basis because they don’t have easy access to medical care — from things that are easily treatable like malaria," he said.

Lee had been going back and forth to Uganda to research public health issues for close to four years. Through his travels, he met several high-level Ugandan leaders and professors at local universities. Those connections helped him secure the necessary permissions to get the clinic off the ground, he said.

Lee and Adusumilli used a large chunk of their own savings to start the nonprofit and build the clinic. Most of Lee’s contribution came from what he had earned when he taught in Korea between college and medical school.

That money goes far in Uganda. The building costs $700 a year, and a three-month supply of medicine — which is subsidized partially by the Ugandan government — costs only $3,000, Lee said. Empower Through Health pays the nurse, lab techs and other clinicians at the clinic a salary of $200 a month.

Mpunde — where the clinic is located — is one of the most remote parts of the country. Many of the people there are subsistence farmers and don’t have a way to get to another health center.

The small clinic in rural Uganda will provide residents with basic services such as vaccinations and family planning.
Credit Empower Through Health
The small clinic in rural Uganda will provide residents with basic services such as vaccinations and family planning.

“They would have to walk for a day, or ride a bicycle for half a day, or ride a motorcycle taxi for an hour to get to the nearest health facility,” Lee said.

The team consists mostly of volunteers in St. Louis, though there are several paid staff members on the ground in Uganda. That includes the certified nurse at the Mpunde clinic, which is not supported by Wash U, Lee said.

Doctors and other professionals on the boards of directors in Africa and North America provide guidance and help coordinate the projects.

“It’s so expensive to provide health care here, but for the amount of money a med-school student has in the U.S., you can actually do things like open health clinics and provide a lot of care for people in developing nations,” said Dylan Bassett, a former Wash U student who helped start the organization and now works at the Chicago-based information-services company Accuity.

By paying the workers at the clinic, the organization can help keep health professionals in rural areas where they’re needed, Bassett said, adding that most doctors and nurses leave for the larger cities such as the capital city, Kampala, where they can earn more.

In addition to the clinic, Empower Through Health is working on other ways to bring health care to the people of Uganda, including developing a tablet-based app that could help the country’s health workers diagnose illnesses.

The organization also works on researching the country’s health problems, in part through “predictive medicine.” By looking at how residents have died and where, doctors can pinpoint which populations are at higher risks for an illness such as malaria.

“Most of us come from a university background; The skill sets line up, where part of the time is spent doing research, and other time is spent managing the clinic,” Bassett said. “We have both areas of expertise and figured, 'Why not exercise both, in an attempt to better understand our target population?'”

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.