March 25, 2019

Advising Africa

Haig works at his office in Williston’s Kismet building on Tuesday.
Observer photo by
Jason Starr

Observer courtesy photo
Dr. Andy Haig with one of his students, Dr. Abena Tannor, in Ghana.

Williston doctor advances rehabilitation overseas

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Dr. Andrew Haig opened a physical medicine office in Williston’s Kismet building in August, returning to Vermont after more than 20 years in Michigan and launching a practice to help local people with injuries and pain return to activities and work.

But his biggest impact these days is being felt thousands of miles away, in countries like Ethiopia and Ghana, where he is committed to finding a sustainable way to spread the knowledge and skills of his specialty.

“This is an area of medicine that’s been neglected,” Haig said during an interview Tuesday. “Rehabilitation just hasn’t grown in Africa. There is no one to take over the case from a surgeon who is bored watching a wound heal.”

Haig is president of the International Rehabilitation Forum, a title that affords him enough clout to persuade African policy makers to authorize programs for doctors to advance to physical medicine and rehabilitation — a discipline that has come to be known as physiatry.

Ethiopia and Ghana were the first to sign on, approving Haig’s two-year distance learning course to train their doctors. In January, he began the class, working with two doctors from Ethiopia and one from Ghana.

“Every Wednesday morning I Skype with my students to teach the course,” he said.

Haig grew up in Wisconsin. It took him eight years of post-graduate work to receive his degree in physical medicine and rehabilitation. He was on the faculty at the University of Vermont’s medical school before returning to the Midwest for a teaching job at the University of Michigan.

Observer courtesy photos
ABOVE: Dr. Andy Haig is a specialist in physiatry, which focuses on physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Haig’s son, a competitive Nordic skier, attended Stratton Mountain School, and Haig always planned to retire to Vermont with his wife. But after receiving Active Emeritus Professor status at the University of Michigan — where he developed programs of non-surgical spine care, cancer rehabilitation and telemedicine — his role had become flexible enough that he could accelerate his move to Vermont.

“It got to a point where we could kind of live where we wanted,” he said.

Right after the Kismet building opened on Blair Park Road in July, Haig joined with a former colleague at UVM, Scott Benjamin, to co-locate their offices under the banner of Benjamin-Haig Physical Medicine.

Throughout his career, Haig has been driven to expand his field into impoverished countries, where people have nowhere to turn in recovery from conflicts and natural disasters.

“After Doctors Without Borders leaves, what should you do with the injured and the amputees?” he said. “There aren’t enough missionaries and wheelchairs to take care of the world.”

Haig said he realized the extent of the problem, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, through his work on the International Rehabilitation Forum.

“We couldn’t find a single doctor in our specialty,” he said.

“Global leaders were shocked by this finding … The fallout was a radical change in the World Health Organization policy so that governments are now obligated to train rehabilitation professionals, not just rely on ‘community based rehabilitation,’ or family and friends, for this sophisticated treatment.”

Haig believes that recruiting doctors who are committed to their communities is a sustainable way to expand the field in Africa. He has broken the ice with Ethiopia and Ghana, but progress remains slow for expanding to other areas of the continent.

“I don’t have enough bandwidth to go to the countries and find the local, passionate doctors,” Haig said.

He hopes a June trip to Europe for a meeting of the International Rehabilitation Forum will help jumpstart the program’s expansion.

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