Surgical training program has powerful impact for African communities

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Pictured above, from L to R: Dr Andrew Newcomb, Professor Russell White and Dr Matthew Read

A program that trains surgeons in rural Africa to perform coronary artery bypass and minimally invasive thoracic surgery is now providing life-saving care to hundreds of patients each year at Tenwek Mission Hospital, in Kenya.

Led by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, the 18-month Fellowship Exchange launched last year was developed to upskill surgeons from the Sub-Saharan region in techniques that assist them in performing critical surgery for patients with heart disease, which has a high rate of incidence in rural African communities.

The techniques taught are helping to improve access to care for patients with ischemic heart disease, enhance recovery, and decrease the overall costs associated with surgery.

Since completing the program earlier this year, Dr Keith Dindi has performed 32 operations, including coronary bypass and minimal invasive operations at Tenwek, using the skills he learned at St Vincent’s. Previously, Tenwek had no surgeons trained to perform these types of life-saving surgeries, which meant the operations could only be conducted every few months when a skilled surgeon was engaged from outside the country.

Dr Dindi has worked as a cardiac and general surgeon for the past four years at Tenwek. So far, 12 coronary artery bypass grafts have been performed in the three months since his return, compared to 17 of the same operation done in the past 10 years at the Mission Hospital.

“Some of these heart patients just can’t wait and in Sub-Saharan Africa, you generally find one cardiac centre for every 32 million people, so we get patients coming to us from all over the region,” said Dr Dindi.

A training program with heart

Dr Andrew Newcomb, Director of Cardiothoracic Surgery at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, said St Vincent’s is proud to be playing a part in making a significant difference in the care that is offered.

“I feel that training these surgeons from the Tenwek Mission aligns with the mission and values of the work that we do here at St Vincent’s, and will allow the people of Sub-Saharan Africa to have top surgeons perform their surgeries,” said Dr Newcomb.

“I am proud of the efforts of Dr Read in coordinating the program at its inception and consider Dr Dindi to be a great ambassador.”

The program’s next participant from Tenwek is due to start later this year and will rotate through the cardiac, thoracic, upper gastrointestinal and vascular surgical units at St Vincent’s in Fitzroy, working closely alongside the hospital’s surgeons.

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Pictured above: Dr Keith Dindi at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne

New frontiers

Dr Matthew Read, an Upper Gastrointestinal surgeon at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne who helped to establish the program said as more surgeons are trained it will create the opportunity for them to start training their peers and build on the skills at a local level as well.

“We will continue to provide guidance and support even after participants complete the training and hope to soon be able to offer virtual support during the course of an operation,” said Dr Read.

“Currently, we are investigating technology that will enable surgeons at St Vincent’s to remotely see what is happening in the operating theatre at Tenwek in real time. This will allow us to provide surgical direction and advice as needed on complex cases,” said Dr Read.

Dr Russell White, a Cardiac Surgeon from the US and Chief of Surgery at Tenwek, was the keynote speaker at The John Clarebrough Memorial Lecture held at St Vincent’s in July. The lecture was held in conjunction with the St Vincent’s Hospital, University of Melbourne Surgical Forum 2023.

Dr White has helped grow Tenwek from a tiny village hospital founded in 1937 to a 400-bed facility that is soon to include the new Tenwek Hospital Cardiothoracic Centre. The new Centre is due to open in August next year and will be the largest dedicated cardiothoracic unit in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr White established the surgical training program for six of Africa’s Sub-Saharan countries including one at Tenwek. The St Vincent’s Fellowship Exchange program has helped to supplement this offering with specialist training in surgical techniques that were not accessible in the surrounding region. 

“This program led by St Vincent’s has the potential to impact cardiac care in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. This partnership is helping fill the skills gaps in our training programs for surgeons in Africa and will be especially useful in the new Heart Centre set to open next year,” said Dr White.

The Kenyan Fellowship Exchange program is a wonderful example of St Vincent’s Health Australia’s commitment to health equity, beyond its own boundaries. This initiative is funded by philanthropic gifts from our donors. If you would like to contribute to the funding of the exchange program, please contact Sue Parkes on 0412 488 341.


Pictured above: Dr Matthew Read (L) teaching Dr Keith Dindi (R) how to perform keyhole surgery for oesophageal cancer at Tenwek Mission Hospital