Collaborating in Kingston

By Jacqueline Molik Ghosen

It was mid-May, and Larry Gersz was ready to hit the ground running in Kingston, Jamaica. 

With three years of medical school and one year of his MBA complete, the dual MD/MBA student was there to help launch a diabetes informatics network. He only had a month to accomplish his mission, so he reached out by email to several stakeholders to set up meetings.

But he didn’t get any responses. “No one was answering any of my emails!” he says. “I was getting nervous about what I would be able to accomplish in the four short weeks I’d be down here.”

Getting to square one

For Gersz, connections in his dual degree program landed him an opportunity to pursue interests in travel and global health. During the MBA portion of his program, he talked regularly with Dorothy Siaw-Asamoah, faculty director of global programs in the School of Management. Through her, he learned of a new collaboration between UB and the University of West Indies (UWI) that was part of UB’s Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences (CIGBS).

Under the mentorship of UWI Professor John Lindo, Gersz’s role was to serve as facilitator among the various stakeholders involved in the creation of the diabetes informatics network.

“Our vision was to use the UB-UWI partnership to enhance the overall research capabilities of Kingston by creating a collaborative digital information network,” says Gersz. “This would allow for larger patient data sets, stronger data analysis and better quality overall of research. For it to be a success, I needed to combine my management perspective and health care background to understand both the purpose of the project and the clinical research.” 

Cultural challenges

But getting there was only the beginning. Once in Kingston, Gersz found a vastly different communication culture.

After the failed email attempts, he spoke to Lindo and learned that in Jamaica, people rely much more on direct communication—either in person or by telephone. Gersz changed his approach and began making calls. “Everyone was immediately responsive, and some were even able to meet with me that same day,” he says.

Adapting quickly to a culture that was, as a whole, less formal, Gersz found his interactions to be positive and productive. “Even though I was a student, a visitor and a guest to both the university and country, I was treated with the respect of a colleague and equal player,” he says.

A complex system

In addition to cultural differences, obstacles included a siloed system with researchers at several separately operated institutions across the city. Additionally, the Jamaican health care system still uses a paper charting system for medical records.

To sort out how each stakeholder would be involved, Gersz met with clinical investigators from facilities across Kingston, UWI administrators, technology support companies, UB School of Management faculty and many others.

“All of the participants were very much committed to getting the network up and running,” says Gersz. “There just hadn’t been anyone with ‘feet on the ground’ to deal with the details and logistics of actually starting.”

Despite the hard work, Gersz was able to have some fun during his month on the Caribbean island, touring the area on weekends. Among the highlights were visits to the Bob Marley Museum, Trench Town Culture Yard (see photos), Port Royal and the Sha’are Shalom Synagogue, as well as a trip to Port Antonio on the northeast coast of the island. “It had a very different culture with a small-town feel, and the beaches were beautiful,” he says.

Ensuring a smooth transition

To help future leaders of the project and keep the goals sustainable, Gersz put his findings into a formal project proposal and presentation. His report included phases of implementation and challenges that needed to be overcome to achieve success.

Long term, the diabetes informatics network will provide more effective treatments for individuals living with diabetes. The pilot project will serve as a model to expand out from diabetes research to a multitude of other chronic diseases. In addition, future projects will include expansion into other sites in Jamaica and other countries working with CIGBS.

Now back in Buffalo, Gersz will finish his MD/MBA in 2020 and begin his residency training in pediatrics. He is continuing work on the project by attending CIGBS meetings to ensure a smooth transition to the next group of UB students and faculty who will continue to develop the informatics network. He plans to make global health and development part of his career in the future.