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Physician-physicist with a passion for education

Physician-physicist with a passion for education

Chris Oh ’91 (Kyong Christopher Oh ’91) attended UWCSEA from 1985 through 1990, graduating early at the age of 16, when he was accepted into the Honour’s Program in Medical Education (HPME), a combined, accelerated BA/MD program at Northwestern University. Chris, who speaks five languages, currently works as an internist in Chicago, USA, but as the interview below reveals, he does so much more than practice medicine.

Brenda Whately, UWCSEA's Director of Alumni Relations recently caught up with Chris over email; here is his story.

Where did you spend your early years?

I was born in South Korea and moved to Malaysia when I was nine. We lived in Johor Bahru, and my two older brothers and I commuted to school in Singapore. Every day we crossed the causeway and went through immigration on both sides twice daily. It was an interesting experience.

When you left UWCSEA, where did you go?

After graduating from UWCSEA in 1990 I started the HPME at Northwestern. This is a great program for those who know they want to go into medicine but also have another area they want to explore during their undergraduate years. I took three years off from the medical program to study subatomic and particle physics at Caltech, obtaining a Master of Science degree. Following that, I finished medical school, completed a three-year residency in Internal Medicine and started private practice.

What inspired your interest in medicine and physics?

I was drawn to medicine and to physics through my love of science. The inner workings of a living organism have always fascinated me and even though science and technology have advanced a great deal, it still amazes me how little we know about the human body and the origins of life. Medicine also gives me an opportunity to help people, which is very empowering for me and something I’ve always known that I wanted to do.

My passion for physics developed during my undergraduate years. My experience at Caltech was amazing. I had the opportunity to take classes from physicists doing cutting edge research, including John Schwartz, one of the founders of String Theory, as well as Kip Thorne and Barry Barrish who won the Nobel prize in physics in 2017 for their work on Gravitational Wave detection.

I understand you have initiated several volunteer projects in Guatemala. Can you describe them?

On a vision care trip to Guatemala in 2018, I noticed the lack of basic healthcare in the rural areas. I realised that the best way to provide ongoing medical care to rural areas like this would be to teach volunteers living in the villages how to treat basic medical conditions and provide medications so they can treat themselves. Since 2013, our church has provided funds to teach volunteer ‘health promoters’, many of whom are illiterate, how to treat common illnesses. The health promoters charge a small fee, which they then use to buy more medicine. In this way, the program is sustainable and does not depend on ongoing funding other than for the initial education. In 2017, 34 health promoters provided 2,211 patient visits in their own community.

I also developed a system where the health promoters submit treatment logs to the main clinic every few months and staff there upload them into an online database. In this way, I can keep track of treatment data in real time, from the U.S. In the future, I would like to create similar sustainable healthcare systems for other rural areas of the world.

In addition to working with health promoters, we also work with traditional midwives known as comadronas. Comadronas, most of whom again are illiterate, provide prenatal and postnatal care to pregnant women, and deliver babies at home. However, due to lack of training and resources, mortality for both newborns and mothers in this setting has traditionally been high. I created an ongoing educational program whereby these traditional comadronas would come to a central clinic once a month and watch teaching videos I have created on USB and YouTube. They then work with a mannequin to practice what they have learned. I was proud to learn that other Spanish speaking clinics are now using these resources.

On that first trip to Guatemala in 2012, we also found that the clinic we visited had been donated ultrasound machine that no one knew how to use. We knew that teaching a doctor how to use one would be very time consuming—not something that could be done during a one or two-week trip. So I came up with a strategy of using Skype to teach the team how to do basic prenatal ultrasound scans. The internet connection was slow and there were many technical challenges but after several meetings between a radiologist, obstetrician and myself in the US and the doctors in the clinic, we confirmed that they were able to do basic scans and detect anomalies. They are also now able to send us ultrasound images that we can review. The clinic has since informed us that after using the ultrasound technology, their rates of birth-related complications and deaths has significantly reduced.

After seeing these successes in this one clinic, I reached out to the Ministry of Health in Guatemala and was introduced to the doctor in charge of the district of Quetzaltenango who informed me that none of the clinics in his district had ultrasound due to funding issues. Through private fundraising I was able to donate eight ultrasound machines. I have also created YouTube training videos for the doctors, demonstrating basic obstetric ultrasound techniques.

I would like to implement this strategy in other rural areas of the world to help reduce maternal and neonatal mortality.

I understand you are also passionate about K–12 science education. Can you describe your interests and initiatives in this area?

I believe that education is the most important thing, not just for students but for everybody. Even in my medical practice I try as much as I can to educate my patients on their medical condition and the inner workings of their body.

When my children started attending school in Chicago, I realised that many teachers appreciate having additional resources made available to them. I was able to connect enthusiastic graduate students from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University with nearby Elementary and Middle Schools to give presentations on science and astronomy. I have also worked with Northwestern’s Department of Education to put together an inquiry-based teaching curriculum that graduate students can use for their presentations. The program has been very successful so far.

During my medical trips to Guatemala I had a chance to visit rural schools as well, where it was clear that teachers lacked basic curriculum to teach core subjects like mathematics, so I created a basic maths curriculum based on Singapore maths. I have heard that this is still being used, and that students are reported to be learning the material well.


20 Dec 2018
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