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From Canada to Uganda

Medical student's passion for innovation and medicine reaches Africa

Student Life

By Michelle Osmond

A third-year doctor of medicine (MD) student at Memorial is the university’s latest Canadian Medical Hall of Fame Award recipient.

The award is given for community leadership, superior communication skills and demonstrated interest in advancing knowledge. It is no wonder Jason Hearn was singled out by the national organization, given his list of academic accomplishments so far.

Simple, accessible and familiar

While pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Toronto, Mr. Hearn designed and developed a mobile phone-based, remote management system for heart failure patients living in Uganda, Africa.

The culturally informed, self-management intervention, called Medly Uganda, uses a mobile device. Patients are presented with a list of options that correspond to numeric buttons.

“In essence, patients can respond to yes-or-no questions pertaining to their heart-failure related symptoms,” he explained. “Upon finishing the symptom questionnaire, the patient receives an SMS (i.e. text) message containing tailored self-care advice based on their reported symptoms and an inbuilt algorithm.”

The Medly Uganda system is accessible on mobile devices and other electronics.
Photo: Submitted

For patients presenting with moderate-to-severe symptoms, an SMS message is also sent to a clinician (or a group of clinicians), with a brief description of the symptoms and a phone number where the patient can be reached. Through that number, the clinician can see additional patient details (e.g. long-term history, demographic information, etc.) in a web-based dashboard, before calling the patient to provide advice on the appropriate next steps.

Mr. Hearn says the system is simple, accessible and familiar – the same platform is commonly used for “mobile money” services, where individuals can transfer or receive money via their device. The intervention can improve patient outcomes as well as overburdened cardiac clinics.

Tailored self-care

The idea for Medly Uganda was inspired by a remote management system called Medly currently deployed in Canada and developed in part by Mr. Hearn’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Joseph Cafazzo. It also enables heart failure patients to better care for themselves through tailored self-care advice and direct access to their health-care team.

“When I approached Dr. Cafazzo about pursuing a global health-focused research thesis, he suggested that we consider developing a similar system for use in a low-income country,” said Mr. Hearn, who is from New Brunswick.

Mr. Hearn helped adapt Medly from a version used in Canada to one that works from a global health perspective.
Photo: Submitted

The pair made some connections with Uganda-based partners and, over two years, worked alongside heart failure patients and clinicians there.

Under the guidance of Dr. Cafazzo and Toronto-based cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross, Mr. Hearn developed connections with Drs. Jeremy Schwartz, Isaac Ssinabulya and Ann Akiteng at the Uganda Initiative for Integrated Management of Non-Communicable Diseases and Dr. Isaac Ssinabulya at the Uganda Heart Institute. With support from this multidisciplinary team, Mr. Hearn worked alongside heart failure patients and clinicians in Uganda over the next two years.

“Based on the formative research from my thesis, my mentors recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to implement Medly Uganda in Uganda.”

Inspired by a pioneer

While applying for the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame award, Mr. Hearn was inspired by 2010 laureate Dr. Calvin Stiller, who pioneered the first multi-organ transplant program in Canada.

Mr. Hearn says he admires Dr. Stiller’s commitment to community involvement, including his promotion of organ donation, resulting in an increase in public awareness of organ donation and the initiation of the organ donor card now attached to drivers’ licenses in Canada.

“I was truly inspired by the way Dr. Stiller embodies the characteristics of physicianship,” Mr. Hearn said. “Dr. Stiller is an incredible inspiration and motivates me to approach my future role as a physician with more than just medical acumen.”

Along with his master’s in health science in clinical engineering, Mr. Hearn completed a bachelor of science in engineering degree at the University of New Brunswick, where he earned the Lieutenant-Governor Silver Medal for highest academic standing before coming to Memorial.

“I could not imagine attending medical school anywhere else.” — Jason Hearn

During his time at Memorial, Mr. Hearn’s innovations in 3D-printing and virtual care have earned him two research awards. He also has publications, research grants and a few conference abstracts and papers under his belt.

In addition, he has worked with medical students from across the country to advocate members of Parliament for improved seniors’ care. He also led the compilation and presentation of research evidence that medical students used to lobby members of the House of Assembly leading to the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to lift the age restriction on insulin pump coverage in the province. Most recently, he helped co-ordinate the distribution of collected personal protective equipment items for frontline health-care workers for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Hearn says his combined experience at Memorial has helped shift his perception of medicine from health outcomes only to one that holds paramount the entire patient experience.

“I was incredibly honoured to have been chosen among such an impressive group of students at Memorial. I am grateful for the opportunity to study at Memorial, and I could not imagine attending medical school anywhere else.”

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