WONCA announces 2016 global five star doctor award to Atai Omoruto

The winner of the WONCA Global Five Star Doctor Award for 2016 is Dr Atai Anne Deborah Omoruto from Uganda, known to all as Atai.

I am sad to advise that Atai passed away in Kampala on May 5, 2016 after a short illness. For this reason, we have brought forward the announcement of our Five Star Family Doctor Award for 2016.

The Five Star Doctor Award is WONCA’s award of Excellence in Health Care by a family doctor. The Five Star Doctor must demonstrate excellence as a care provider, decision maker, communicator, community leader and team member.

Once a year, each of WONCA’s seven regions is invited to award a Regional Five Star Doctor Award to one family doctor in their region. Each three years, the winners from each region compete for the title of WONCA’s Global Five Star Doctor, which is announced at our WONCA World Conference to recognize the family doctor who is judged to have made the greatest contribution to health care in the world over the past three years.

Our 2016 Global Five Star Doctor Award to Atai has been made in recognition of her extraordinary service as a family medicine leader over many years, her service to the people of Uganda, and her recent extraordinary leadership tackling the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

I first met Atai in 2007 at a Network Towards Unity for Health conference, which was held in Uganda. At the time our president-elect, Amanda Howe, was chair of WONCA’s working party on women in family medicine, and Amanda shared with me Atai’s contact details, and Atai and I arranged to meet in Kampala.

Atai took me to visit the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Makerere in Kampala, where she served as department head from 2003-2012. Her university Department of Family Medicine was housed in a building called “The Hippo House”, so named because in the past the building had actually housed a hippopotamus that was used for physiology experiments. Atai and her family medicine education and research team were occupying the former living quarters of a hippopotamus, with a deep concrete pit in the middle of the room where the hippo had lived. Atai also showed me the training facilities for medical students at the university, took me through the main hospital primary care clinic, and to her own private clinic in central Kampala where she provided care after hours to some of the poorest people in that city, including providing a space where women could deliver their babies safely under her supervision. Atai also introduced me to some of her children, some her biological children, and some adopted children including some who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.

Atai has been involved with WONCA over many years. She was the first President of the Association of Family Physicians of Uganda and brought the association into WONCA as a member organisation. She was a foundation member of the East African Association of Family Physicians and supported the development of family medicine in Tanzania and Rwanda. She has been a strong voice for family medicine in Africa as a member of our WONCA Africa Regional Council and as a member of our global Working Party on Women and Family Medicine. She has been a much loved and respected member of our WONCA family, known for her selflessness, her words of wisdom and her sense of humor.

In July of 2014, when West Africa was in the midst of the Ebola epidemic, Atai travelled to Liberia as the leader of a medical unit of 12 health workers brought from Uganda by the World Health Organisation to fight the Ebola outbreak. Uganda had experienced a number of outbreaks of Ebola in the past and, through her experience in her own country, Atai had become one of the world’s most experienced doctors in managing outbreaks of Ebola.

Travelling to Liberia was a very brave decision. Many front line doctors and nurses were among the victims of Ebola, infected while providing treatment, care and support to their patients, and this left the health services in affected countries vulnerable and unable to cope with meeting the continuing health care needs of their communities. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa had taken an unprecedented toll on health care workers, infecting more than 880 and killing more than 500.

In an interview with Liberia’s Daily Observer newspaper, Atai said that on arrival in Liberia, “what I saw was dead bodies everywhere; there were more dead bodies than patients, and nobody seemed to know what to do.”

Atai and her team got to work, setting up systems to treat those affected by Ebola and supporting the training of local health care workers. The WHO had reported that in many cases, “medical staff had been at risk because no protective equipment was available – not even gloves and face masks, and that the compassionate instincts of those who sometimes rush to aid "visibly ill" people without pausing to protect themselves also put health workers at increased risk. Health care workers were overworked, stretched thin and exhausted”, which risked mistakes happening in infection control. And doctors reported that working in protective suits was very challenging in the heat, especially in the absence of air conditioning. Indeed many facilities had no power or lighting at all.

Through their work, Atai and her team made a major contribution towards changing the course of this terrible epidemic. And it was not without its toll. At least two Ugandans died while assisting the people of Liberia. Atai stayed in Liberia for six months, working under very arduous conditions, and not returning home to her family in Kampala until December.

In September 2015, at a United Nations meeting in New York, I met Tolbert Nyenswah, Deputy Minister of Health in Liberia, and the head of the Liberia Incident Management System Ebola Response. He told me about the wonderful contribution Atai made in his country during the Ebola crisis, and how she was a powerful and effective advocate, visiting him many times with repeated demands for the resources and support needed to bring the epidemic under control. Atai later advised me, “I am sure he has vivid memories of me from that time .......... some sweet, others ........... not-so-sweet! As I sometimes say, the end justifies the means!”

Atai has since been named as one of the 11 most important contributors to tackling the Ebola crisis in Liberia. She also received the 2015 Uganda Golden Jubilee medal for her work tackling Ebola.

Liberia and the world owe a huge debt of gratitude to Atai and to the many other health workers from across Africa and across the world who came to West Africa to provide their support during this dark hour.

Atai has shown us all the extraordinary contributions that family doctors can make, at a local level, at a national level, and at a global level. I admired Atai greatly before the Ebola crisis. She is now one of my personal all time heroes of family medicine.

WONCA wanted to provide Atai with the opportunity to share her experiences with family doctors from around the world and so we invited Atai to be one of the plenary speakers at our WONCA World Conference in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in November 2016. Sadly, this will now not happen.

Our thoughts and our prayers are with the members of Atai’s family and with her many friends and colleagues around the world who loved and respected and admired her. The world has lost a global family medicine champion.

Michael Kidd
World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA)