Pediatrician contributes to sustainable development in East Africa
Dr. Robert Armstrong is a recipient of the 2022 Royal College M. Andrew Padmos International Collaboration Award
While reflecting on his most recent role as foundation dean of Aga Khan University (AKU) Medical College in East Africa — one of his proudest contributions — Robert Armstrong, MD, FRCPC, highlights how sustained collaboration and building capacity are essential to having an impact.
The professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and AKU was awarded the 2022 Royal College M. Andrew Padmos International Collaboration Award for his outstanding global contributions in advancing postgraduate medical education.
“Reaching beyond our borders is important,” says Dr. Armstrong. “There is a great deal not only to contribute but also to learn from global engagements.”
Dr. Armstrong began his career as a pediatrician with a faculty position at UBC and a clinical appointment at Vancouver’s Sunny Hill Health Centre, a part of BC Children’s Hospital that provides specialized developmental assessments and rehabilitation services for children, youth and their families.
His clinical and research interests focus on childhood disability, population-based strategies for the prevention of developmental disorders and clinical and health services strategies for improving the outcomes of children.
“I had the opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary environment with very creative colleagues who transformed our thinking about disabilities,” he says. “Together, we focused on abilities, worked with families and understood contexts within which a child with disabilities can thrive.”
Making an impact beyond Canada’s borders
Dr. Armstrong’s early-career experience, which included several leadership positions, developed his passion for international collaboration.
When he was head of the Department of Pediatrics at UBC and chief of Pediatric Medicine at the BC Children’s Hospital from 2000 to 2010, he and his colleagues established BC Children’s Hospital’s Centre for International Child Health (CICH).
In the last 20 years, CICH has connected innovative researchers, clinicians, students and partners throughout Africa, South America and Asia to strengthen both local and international capacity.
Quality residency programs support sustainable impact
While establishing CICH with his colleagues is considered one of Dr. Armstrong’s important achievements, joining AKU in 2010 as foundation dean was also an incredible opportunity. At AKU, he contributed to the institution’s mission to create an East African campus whose strong development focus would impact communities across the region.
“I was first introduced to the work of the Aga Khan Development Network [AKDN] and AKU in 2006 through a colleague for a project to support the development of a children’s hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan,” he says. “The visit to Kabul and a subsequent sabbatical at AKU in Karachi, Pakistan, clearly demonstrated the importance of the network’s vision and impact on communities.”
Dr. Armstrong was invited to take on the role as foundation dean of AKU Medical College in East Africa, which he assumed from 2010 to 2020. The institution is based in Nairobi, Kenya, with a mandate that also spans Tanzania and Uganda.
“AKU’s vision was to establish a university in East Africa with health sciences being one of the major components of the plan,” he says. “There was an existing Aga Khan community hospital in Nairobi, but the challenge was how to transform this to a university hospital with medical, nursing and allied health sciences programs.”
“A strategically important decision was to not start with an undergraduate medical program but instead focus on building high-quality residency programs,” he adds. “Recruiting graduates from East African public medical schools, facilitating their training and having them return as junior faculty and clinical experts to the medical college and hospital practice was key.”
Fellowship training occurred at several international locations, with Canadian opportunities being the most prominent and highly valued.
Dr. Armstrong notes that there were many contributors involved, even before his time at AKU. “Although the strategy was challenging, it was highly effective,” he says.
There are now two medical school campuses (Kenya and Tanzania) with over 130 faculty members. More than 200 residents have graduated from nine specialties, with 90 per cent of graduates retained and serving in various capacities within the AKU/AKDN health system and in the private and public sectors.
Collaboration is key
Today, with the help of many international partners, the AKU Medical College in East Africa continues to mature as a centre for education and research. In 2023, the institution will start providing undergraduate training that will help increase local capacity to the next level.
“I am honoured for this recognition,” Dr. Armstrong says as he reflects on being a recipient of the M. Andrew Padmos International Collaboration Award.
“My only hesitation is that recognizing me does not capture all those who have contributed equally to these achievements.”