June 6, 2023

Scholarship helps student combine research, clinical experience in Ghana

The recipient of a Woll Scholarship, Sanaya Irani spent six weeks in Ghana helping with an ongoing home blood pressure monitoring project for expecting mothers.

Research assistants Sanaya Irani (left) and Betty Nartey administering the numeracy survey to women involved in Home Blood Pressure program

Busy course schedules and two years of pandemic travel restrictions meant Sanaya Irani had to delay her first international educational experience as a UMMS student.

But a donor-funded scholarship and meaningful work on an ongoing maternal health project in Ghana made the wait worthwhile.

“I’ve been wanting to do some kind of global research experience for a while, and this turned out to be a really incredible experience,” Sanaya said. “The work is really about creating a change in the way blood pressure and pregnancy is approached, at the least at the hospital we were at in Ghana.”

The recipient of a Woll Scholarship to support international clerkships, Sanaya spent 6-weeks this spring at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, in Accra, helping with research that explores the benefits of home blood-pressure monitoring for expecting Ghanaian mothers. The work is an extensive ongoing collaboration led by UMMS Clinical Assistant Professor of Ob-Gyn Emma Lawrence.

During her visit, Sanaya interviewed household members supporting the participants in the study (i.e., husbands or other family members), and also helped to create and test a survey designed to measure how well the study participants understood information about blood pressure measurements obtained through their self-monitoring.

In the current pilot phase of the project, the mothers only get to keep their blood pressure monitors for a month.

“Many were sad they had to return the cuff after the pilot was over,” Sanaya said. “We had a few husbands who told us they went ahead and bought their wives their own cuffs as soon as they had to return ours. They saw the value and were eager to learn more, asking the right questions.”

Sanaya was struck by the persistence of the Ghanaian researchers she worked with. Because there is no electronic medical record system—and thus no easy way to look up patient appointment dates or times—team members contacted the study participants individually to schedule interviews coinciding with upcoming hospital visits.

“I had to quickly learn to be flexible and adaptable to catch patients in between appointments, whether that meant sitting with them while they waited to get their blood pressure measured or catching them after they had finished their scans for the day,” she said. “This experience taught me valuable skills many researchers develop which allow them to remain adaptable when working in under resourced areas.”

Woll Scholarships, made possible through the generosity of Drs. Douglas and Margo Yellin Woll, offer up to $2,500 in support of experiences that combine a scholarly component (e.g., a mentored research or quality improvement project) with more traditional clinical clerkships. Global REACH is currently accepting applications for students planning travel in the summer or fall of this year. The deadline to apply to June 26.

Sanaya spent several days observing in Korle Bu’s labor and delivery ward, as well the in the OR. The resourcefulness of the providers impressed her. In the US, physicians often use a device called a Foley balloon to control postpartum hemorrhage. The specialized devices aren’t always available at Korle Bu, so the doctors make their own using condoms.

“It was brilliant. They provide incredible care while making the most to the resources they have there,” she said. “They are so creative.”

An M3, Sanaya is also planning a Master’s of Public Health in epidemiology, and hopes to return to Ghana during that program to continue work on aspects of the blood pressure monitoring research if she is able.

“For me, this experience not only reinforced that I am really passionate about global health, but also the importance of continuity,” she said. “I want to be part of team that invested for the long haul. It is meaningful, knowing that work is being continued even after you are not there.”