Life experiences in developing countries compel Moon Yoon, MS3, to purse interests in global health

May 23, 2013
yoon52113Yoon recently gave oral presentation at international meeting of academic surgeons in New Orleans

Lack of access to healthcare in developing countries can be devastating—deadly to some.

Just ask Moon Yoon. Living in the jungles of Indonesia as a child, where his parents moved to work as teachers, he experienced this harsh reality firsthand—when he came down with malaria and almost died. His brush with death would've been unheard of in developed countries, but in the jungles of Indonesia? Something as simple as not having access to IV fluids almost cost him his life.

Now a third-year medical student in the OHSU School of Medicine, Yoon speaks passionately about global health, an area of interest that came full circle working with children in South America after studying engineering and philosophy. "I didn't consider medicine until later in adulthood, after my experience working in Ecuador," he said. "Seeing families struggle to meet the most basic needs of health prompted me to pursue medicine and enroll at OHSU."

Earlier this year, at the 8th Annual Academic Surgical Congress (ASC) in New Orleans, Yoon was invited to give an oral presentation to several hundred academic surgeons. The event marked the first time the congress had incorporated sessions on global health into its annual meeting. Yoon's presentation was on the global surgical workforce shortage, and focused on West African medical students.

"Surgical disease including trauma is responsible for up to 16% of morbidity and mortality in developing African nations," said Yoon. "Not surprisingly, most of these countries also have a severe shortage of surgeons. For example, Liberia has 5 general surgeons for the entire country of 4 million."

Knowing that career choice of medical students plays an important role in meeting workforce shortages, his team* sponsored by the Association for Academic Surgery, conducted a survey of medical students in Liberia and Nigeria, examining their medical interests and the factors influencing their career choice.

"We found that the top factors influencing career choice among our surveyed students—mentorship, career prospects, and exposure to specialty—were similar to those of American students," said Yoon. "However, our survey results suggested that in the different health care economic landscape of West Africa, students interested in surgery were discouraged by the lack of mentors and perceived career opportunities in the field and favored better-funded specialties."

According to Yoon, there is no short term solution to the problem. One reason, he said, is that global funding agencies have historically placed more emphasis on communicable diseases and nutrition. "We need a shift in this mindset," said Yoon. "Increasing global health funding for surgery will put much needed resources into these countries and improve the morbidity and mortality rate. Furthermore, it can address the surgeon shortage by increasing the visibility and feasibility of a career in surgery and ultimately encourage native students to enter the field."

Working on this project and attending the ASC meeting has had an instrumental impact on Yoon's own career choice. "I entered medical school with a desire to meet the health care needs of underserved populations both at home and abroad," he said. "Learning about the significant impact one can have as a surgeon in rural America or Africa, and the dire need for surgeons, immediately sparked my interest in pursuing a career in surgery."

Presenting on a topic he felt passionate about to an audience full of academic surgeons dedicated to global surgery was an "amazing" opportunity. Yoon said, "Perhaps more than the formal interactions, I was stimulated by conversations with surgeons from across the world who are working to improve global health care. For example, hearing real life stories from a Nigerian surgeon who personally knows every single surgeon in Liberia gave me invaluable insight I would not have been able to experience short of personally traveling to West Africa."

Regardless of the medical specialty he ultimately chooses, Yoon said global health will play an important role in his future career.


Pictured: Moon Yoon and son

*Team members:

Moon Yoon1, Estin Yang1, Benedict Nwomeh2, Peter Ekeh3, Jonathan Laryea4, Susan Orloff1, Sanjay Krishnaswami1

1Department Of Surgery, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR; 2Department Of Surgery, Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, OH; 3Wright State University Department Of Surgery, Dayton, OH;  4Department Of Surgery, University Of Arkansas For Medical Sciences, Little Rock, AR