Closing the medical knowledge gap worldwide

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Malibu resident Dr. Eric Savitsky, left, at the Shanghai No. 6 People's Hospital in China. Through the Center for International Medicine, Savitsky hopes to easily train medical care workers in other countries with new media, such as DVD video productions made here. Photos courtesy of Center for International Medicine

A local doctor creates a unique way of addressing healthcare worldwide.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Standing on the sideline of his son’s soccer games directing plays, Eric Savitsky is just a soccer coach, a role he has had for the past seven years. The Malibu resident, father of two and local surfer is known for his active involvement in the community, not by what he calls his “many hats.”

Few know that Savitsky’s “hats” as UCLA Emergency Medical Center’s director of Trauma Services and Education and as UCLA Professor of Emergency Medicine are only the beginning: Savitsky has made it his personal project to transform the way global inequalities in world healthcare are addressed.

At a breakfast interview with The Malibu Times at Coogie’s where Savitsky is a frequent visitor, he excitedly shared mobile phone footage of the proper methods for treating burn victims, and laptop video footage of treatment of a patient with a collapsed lung and a blood-filled chest cavity in the emergency room at UCLA.

These are just some of the digital means Savitsky is utilizing as executive director of the UCLA Center for International Medicine, or CIM, a nonprofit he founded that is attempting to change the way medical knowledge is accessed by health care providers throughout the world, and as president of a company that creates new, innovative medical education tools.

CIM works with relief and world organizations like the United Nations and the International Relief Committee that identify countries or areas that need improved education to treat specific medical problems.

Then, using digital media, video footage and recreation of simulations of live situations on production sets, training materials are produced and disseminated to these countries to educate native medical trainers. CIM Managing Director Koren Shelton dubbed CIM a “medical training production company.” “We have created a tool that whatever your education needs are, you can implement it,” Savitsky said.

While serving in Bosnia in 1994 during the Bosnian War that occurred at the time of his residency at UCLA, Savitsky worked to teach medical providers there the latest medical techniques, but became dismayed that there would not be a lasting impact after he left.

Because the textbook/lecture method could only go so far, upon his return, Savitsky began to brainstorm ways to utilize advancing technology to close the gap in world medical knowledge and the way that knowledge is disseminated.

After receiving a grant from UCLA, Savitsky teamed with a UCLA film student, and with patient consent, filmed some of his cases in the ER. From there, Savitsky worked to establish partnerships with various organizations, and using carefully selected field experts, created multimedia materials to use to train health care professionals in other countries.

In 2004, CIM worked in collaboration with Project Hope to create multimedia materials for China and Egypt on how to care for trauma and injury victims.

On a project for the United Nations Mine Action Service, CIM created self-guided, interactive training DVDs to teach relief workers, prior to deployment in war torn countries, how to recognize land mines and treat victims.

Savitsky said most health care aid and the programs they serve are distributed through “vertical” health care programs, where money directly funds and supports specific diseases and epidemics, such as AIDS or malaria.

CIM has identified two major needs that are not being meet by world health organizations: treatment of injury, often resulting from traffic and construction accidents, and chronic disease, such as cancer and diabetes, which make up the majority of the causes of worldwide death.

To have a broader impact on healthcare, CIM implements “horizontal” programs, or, specifically, worldwide “train-the-trainer” programs, which use the advanced multimedia materials that are easy to use and reproduce.

CIM uses local professionals, from actors to directors, to produce the video footage.

The organization’s most recent completed project, produced with the International Rescue Committee, is DVD training material on how to provide clinical care for survivors of sexual assault. Footage and information was obtained in several refugee camps in Africa, and then a set modeling an African health care clinic was reproduced in Los Angeles where medical simulations were filmed based on information obtained on the trip.

Nicole Durden, CIM project manager, said meeting some of the refugees who had suffered from sexual assault, some of whom had lived in the camps for 15 years, made the organization’s work more powerful. Durden, who has worked with CIM for the past year, met Savitsky in Malibu while finishing up a graduate degree at Pepperdine University in public policy.

“Dr. Savitsky leads our team with great ideas, outstanding work ethic, and an unwavering dedication to improve global health worldwide,” Durden said. “His commitment to the center’s work, his ongoing medical career and volunteering in the local community is an inspiration to all of our colleagues.”

New digital technologies have made the center’s material an inexpensive alternative to textbooks or sending large numbers of U.S. medical professionals overseas to teach medical providers in other countries.

However, due to bureaucracy and issues over funding, CIM has not been unable to see some projects through as far as they would like, Savitsky said. Barriers such as battles over money between various branches of government and hold ups with international aid have created impasses in meeting medical needs in some countries.

“What our organization likes to focus on is strengthening health care workers and systems that can be applied to a variety of diseases and disorders,” Savitsky said. “We would like to not have our organization tied to federal aid agency priorities.”

The current system of health care aid underfunds 70 percent to 80 percent of the treatment for the causes of death and disease, Savitsky added, due to political lobbies for specific organizations and diseases that funnel money to very specific problems, instead of attempting to tackle wider health care problems.

“The sources of funding are limited,” Durden said. “That’s why we are pursuing different avenues and foundation support.”

It is the hope of CIM, through utilizing new technologies and the way medical knowledge is garnered, that they can branch out to new projects without being contracted by an organization for a specific project.

This also means exploring even faster and more accessible means of transmitting knowledge. Savitsky is currently in the process of working on developing health care tutorial videos that can be exchanged and viewed over mobile phones, like the one shown to The Malibu Times. The program will be test piloted domestically, Savitsky said, before being used overseas.

“As an American, you can sometimes take advantage of the ease and availability to get health care in the United States. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around-if you or your family couldn’t get care for the common cold or something more serious,” Durden said. “Our center is unique in its way to approach global health and the technology we’ve developed.”