May 4, 2021

A medical school's revolutionary dream comes true

Leading with a community first approach to medical education and health care in the Philippines
ADZU-SOM resident assessing an infant.

Dr. Fortunato Cristobal, MD, had a vision for medical education and health care in Mindanao, a large southern island in the Philippines. With decades of support from partners like the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, his vision is becoming reality.

Cristobal is the dean at Ateneo de Zamboanga School of Medicine (ADZU-SOM) located on the southern tip of Mindanao. He predicted that graduates of the school would one day influence the direction of health care in the area and beyond. 35 years after a request to open a medical school was sent to the Ministry of Education, Cristobal’s predication has come true.

“We’re making a revolutionary dent in the medical education and health systems in the Philippines. We’re introducing community-based, problem-based and longitudinal learning, and how to assess skills and competency rather than just knowledge,” says Cristobal.

ADZU-SOM’s methodology, curriculum and reputation have gained international recognition leading other universities to adopt a similar model. The National University of Laos has implemented a community-based curriculum. Cambodia is also working to adapt the ADZU-SOM curriculum and its institutional and medical operations. ADZU-SOM was also identified in the World Health Organization’s Towards Unity for Health working paper as a model medical school leading with community consultation. In 2018, The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada awarded ADZU-SOM the Charles Boelen International Social Accountability Award for prioritizing health needs of the community in its education while valuing equity and effectiveness.  

Encouraged by many of their CSM global health partners, ADZU-SOM faculty have participated in international conferences sharing their journey and experience with building a school from the ground up and curriculum development. “Ateneo de Zamboanga School of Medicine has made tremendous contributions to the reaches of Zamboanga and beyond,” says Dr. Gwen Hollaar, MD, Assistant Dean, Global Health Education Development, Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office at the CSM.

The success of ADZU-SOM was made possible by perseverance, dedication and longstanding global health partnerships, like the one with CSM. “The innovations (CSM faculty) shared, plus the encouragement and support have come a long way and will continue to do so in the decades to come. These are the legacies you have unselfishly extended that will last for years,” says Cristobal. His words emphasize the importance of global health partners adopting an attitude of “how can I help?” rather than “I know what you need” to create successful, sustainable and respectful partnerships.

ADZU-SOM Students are encouraged to seek leadership positions to change the Philippines’ current individual focused health system to one that is concerned with the overall wellbeing of the surrounding population. They are trained to listen and respond to the issues of the community and that is how they will shape health care moving forward. Today, graduates of ADZU-SOM hold the positions of Zamboanga City Medical Center Chief, Zamboanga City Health Office Director, and as Provincial Health Officers within neighbouring islands and the Zamboanga Peninsula.