Filling a need: Observing a gap in specialized care, Dr. Leigh Sowerby is monitoring and training physicians in Otolaryngology in Guyana

Dr. Leigh Sowerby Performing Surgery on Patient

When Dr. Leigh Sowerby, Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, set out on a medical mission to Guyana in 2012, he never could have imagined a chance encounter would lead him on a path to improve and expand the practice of Otolaryngology within the impoverished country.

Originally slated to provide outreach care to Guyanese patients in peripheral villages, it was Dr. Sowerby’s encounter with Guyana’s only academic otolaryngologist that piqued his interest.

“The need for expansion and improved care in Otolaryngology was apparent,” said Dr. Sowerby.

As one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere, the scope and availability of comprehensive healthcare services and providers in Guyana is understandably limited. With close to 800,000 people in Guyana, there are only two practicing otolaryngologists providing care in the public healthcare system.

“Both otolaryngologists are expatriates from India and Cuba working on contract, and as such, there is no guarantee or probability they will stay for an extended period of time,” said Dr. Sowerby.

Inspired by his first trip, Dr. Sowerby returned to Guyana in 2014 to work alongside the University of Guyana’s House Officers and local otolaryngologist to teach endoscopic sinus surgery technique and skill. A year later, Dr. Sowerby travelled back to Guyana, this time with fellow Schulich Medicine & Dentistry colleagues, Dr. Murad Husein and Dr. David Sommerfreund, in tow to teach paediatric airway skills and treatment.

Factors such as expressed need, shared official language and time zones make Guyana an ideal country for international medical missions.

Collaboratively, with the Canadian Society of Otolaryngology’s Global Health Interest Group and members of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, Dr. Sowerby is working to implement a post-graduate program in Otolaryngology to increase specialization in this area and create greater access to care.

Fostering an outreach program in Guyana for the next five to seven years is a main priority for Dr. Sowerby, as it will help to train Guyanese physicians to support the program. Currently there is one registrar, Dr. Shawn Legall, who has spent the past three years training in an informal Otolaryngology mentorship program in Guyana and will be acting as the on-site program contact upon completion.

“The program helps engage our colleagues practicing community Otolaryngology and fosters national collaboration,” said Dr. Sowerby.

Once the post-graduate program is established, Dr. Sowerby hopes it will lead to new outreach opportunities in Guyana for Otolaryngology residents of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, as well as those nationwide.

Working with a five-to-10 year timeline in mind, the overall goal of this Otolaryngology-centred initiative is to impact Guyana’s health outcomes and bring a greater degree of care to the country.

Though Dr. Sowerby admits it sounds cliché, when speaking about his experience in Guyana he said, “It adds another dimension to my practice and I think it helps to give one perspective on both life and how lucky we are to live in a country like Canada.”