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Wed 24 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Best of health

Graduating the first class of doctors in the country is the just the start of Weill Cornell Medical College's commitment to healthcare in Qatar, says Michael Vertigans, the university's director of public affairs.

Graduating the first class of doctors in the country is the just the start of Weill Cornell Medical College's commitment to healthcare in Qatar, says Michael Vertigans, the university's director of public affairs.

Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar is one of the six branch campuses of American universities in Education City. We're the only American university to offer MD degrees overseas, so it's a unique venture. The committee of admissions sits in New York.

We do all the interviews and paperwork here, but it's the same committee that decides on academic achievement. This means that our standards are kept high, and as an Ivy League university, the Cornell brand is very important.

In terms of applications, we're looking for grades of As and A pluses; that kind of academic achievement. The scores of our graduating class are on par or better than the graduating class in New York, so that shows the quality of student that's coming through here.

The difference between Qatar and other parts of the region is that it offers a home-based degree, so the students who graduate here get the Weill Cornell degree from the United States. It's not a partnership or an affiliation deal - this is the actual degree that students would get in New York.

We have a triple mission of education, research and patient care. We started in 2002, so we've done the full cycle in education now. We've just graduated our first class of 15 students, who are now doing residences. It's a six year degree programme - two years of pre-medical training, and four years medical.

This is the first academic medical centre on one site of its kind in the region. The teaching hospital and the college are side by side, connected by an underground tunnel. Our faculty and students will be operating in that hospital, and they can shuttle back and forth.

In the medical programme, we have an affiliation agreement with Hamad Medical Corporation, where students get early exposure in clinics and hospitals as part of their studies.

We've signed this deal with Hamad, like Weill Cornell Medical College in New York has done with New York Presbyterian Hospital. We also have research opportunities here. Students will be taking part in Sidra Medical and Research Centre as well as Hamad.

There is a great variety of patient cases passing through the state health provider, so we'll continue to operate with these partners. That's our approach; the partnerships are very important.At the end of the day, no doctors have been trained on the ground in this country, except from May 2008. Historically, they went to Europe or the US, and then would come back.

The attraction is to come here as a young physician, because a lot of the physicians not only become medical educators or clinicians treating people, but researchers as well.

Our faculty in New York, of which there are 1300, wears many hats. They may be practising surgeons but also work as educators. There are some who are researchers as well as educators, so they have different responsibilities.

We teach in three ways. We have more than 65 faculty living in Doha, and growing. We also have visiting faculty from Ithaca come to teach on the pre-med programme, and from New York for the medical programme. Typically, they come over after delivering a lecture or class there, and two weeks later, deliver it here in Qatar.

The third way we teach, because we're in an Apple Macintosh wireless environment, is by video streaming and live video conferencing with New York and Ithaca.

Medical schools in the UK and the US have been around for many years, but we had the advantage of building a medical school from scratch to our own specifications.

This means that we have a digital library. It's a library without walls; it's wireless. All the students have handheld PDAs, so they can operate anywhere in the building.

We also have a summer programme, whereby groups of students go to New York or Ithaca to conduct research. We've actually just had our fifth annual research forum.

The students go for 10 week blocks and join research teams in laboratories there, so they get that early exposure to a research culture. Then they come back and present to their peers.

They do posters and oral presentations to fellow scientists, so again they get that culture. In fact, there'll be more research faculty to come here in Doha - 120 researchers, and 18 investigators.We do a lot of school visits. The admissions and student affairs team have schools coming in on a rolling programme to visit the college. We also go out to them. We just held an event a little while ago called Medicine Unlimited.

We got young people and their parents in to do scientific experiments. It wasn't very admissions-oriented, but it generated interest in science and medicine.

There's also an Education City roadshow which goes around the Middle East, when all the six campuses get together and present what's happening to the students.  We were at Gitex in Dubai a few weeks ago, and we received 130 enquiries, just in one day.

We have 239 students at the moment from 33 countries, so it's a United Nations. Thirty per cent of our students are Qatari; they're the largest single nationality. Two thirds of our students come from across the region, but we also have students from South Korea, Bosnia, the US and Africa.

We have targets of 60 students per year. The building can accommodate 100, so we have room for expansion. This is the level the Qatar Foundation has decided on for now, but the figures can be increased.

The government pays for Qatari students, but if you're not Qatari, you can apply to the Foundation for interest free loans. There's also a third option, and this is a payment in kind.

If I graduate as a physician, for example, I come back to Qatar, I do so many years of service to the country, and I've paid off my debt that way, through an agreed tenure of being a doctor in Qatar. It depends on each individual case of course, which the Foundation agrees on with the students.

What the Foundation has done with Education City is a long-term vision - they're thinking about 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now. Only a third of Education City has been built, and already there are 30 organisations or so here. There's a school, a science park and a new hospital to come.

Everything you see in Education City is run by the Qatar Foundation. They fund the whole programme, in terms of the building, the infrastructure and the IT. Qatar Foundation has a contract with each university to operate for an agreed term.

Usually it's 11 years, renewable. We've committed for the long term because Education City fits in with the ethos of a transnational university, which is what we're about.

The University of Calgary in Canada is opening a nursing school here, and Qatar University has opened a pharmacy college, so you can see the pieces of the healthcare delivery jigsaw fitting together. It's a very exciting time for healthcare, and for education in this country.

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