Global Health Narratives Interview Series: Meet Dr. Drucilla Roberts

Drucilla Roberts, MD is a perinatal pathologist and a faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, Massachusetts). I found out about her work in global pathology when I spent time in a Ugandan laboratory she has been working in for about a decade. We didn’t meet there, but since then, I’ve read everything she has written about global pathology – she has published a wealth of knowledge on the topic. I recently spoke with her on the phone to find that she is incredibly kind, humble, and a true luminary. Read on to understand the needs of global pathology better and learn how you can get involved!

Q: Dr. Roberts, I’m curious to know how you got started in global health.

A: I have always wanted to give back to the continent–both my daughters and my husband are from Africa and I spent time in the early part of my career working in research under the Women and Infants Transmission Study (WITS) that studied the congenital transmission of HIV. I decided that I would find a way to volunteer my time as a pathologist while my family and I were in Ethiopia. I went to a teaching hospital and offered to volunteer my services–I made contacts and soon enough, I was giving lectures. And that’s how it all started! Since that humble beginning I have given three courses in sub Saharan Africa on the anatomic pathology of women and children. It is a privilege to teach in Africa and I hope to continue to do so.

Soon I was contacted by people working in perinatal global health that had heard I was working in Africa and recruited me to help with their projects in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. One main objective for me to become involved in research projects in Africa was to improve pathology capacity. For the last ten years, the majority of the work that I have done has revolved around capacity building.

Due to the nature of my work as a perinatal pathologist, many opportunities have arisen to work with populations internationally due to the abundance of research and volunteer roles that exist. I am often contacted to consult on perinatal and autopsy cases, and my subspecialty expertise has presented a perfect opportunity to provide mentorship.

Q: What are some improvements that you have seen in that time?

A: Generally, in medical academic institutions in East Africa, departments are split between the hospital and the university creating a competition for resources and energy between teaching and service work. Often service work suffers due to the discordant provision of resources. When I first started working there, I saw a very long turnaround time for cases due to issues beyond the lab’s control (e.g. supply chain problems and faculty disruptions). I’ve been fortunate to witness these institutions begin to prioritize patient care and create avenues to decreasing turnaround time. It’s been very rewarding for me to help support these efforts. Many exciting things have happened—an example from Mbarrara—when I first arrived, there was one broken microscope that the resident used, and one microscope that the chief pathologist used. There was no immunohistochemistry, and no cameras for photographing slides. Now, there is a multiheaded scope, multiple individual microscopes (that work!), and a microscope camera. There is power backup so equipment still runs when the power goes out (a common occurrence across the continent), an adequately equipped histology lab, and most recently a case tracking system! [More to come about this tracking system in a future interview with an amazing pathology PA–Nichole Baker.] The histology staff have received additional training and mentorship. The pathology residents have increased from one to four and have also received additional training, mentorship, and have access to subspecialist consult services from MGH when needed. The pathologists and residents can send MGH pathology case photos via email or blocks by courier and together we come up with a diagnosis. When on site immunohistochemistry was introduced, it was a huge advance! [Author’s note: I remember the effect this had when I was working in the lab in Mbararra–the clinicians used to ask the pathologist “Is it lymphoma?”, now after IHC they ask “Which type of lymphoma?”]

Q: What are some of the main problems to improving pathology services in Africa right now?

A: One of the biggest problems is that there are not enough pathologists. You can help improve things in individual labs to a point, but for long term there has to be more pathologists working in Africa. For example, the laboratory in Mbarrara went an entire year without a senior staff pathologist with a senior resident essentially running the department. Often the renumeration for the pathologists (residents and faculty) in government hospitals is so low that they take on second jobs in the private sector. One of the things that we in pathology need to focus on is building systems and influencing healthcare management policy across the continent. Recruitment of pathology residents, teaching, training, and continued medical education all need to be prioritized. [Authors note: Dr. Roberts has written extensively about the need for pathology services in Africa – for anyone interested in this topic, there are two key articles she authored that are a must read: “Pathology Functionality in Resource-Poor Settings” and “Improving Diagnostic Pathology Capacity for Global Cancer Care”. Another that she co-authored is crucial for understanding the seriousness and scope of the problem, “Improvement of pathology in sub-Saharan Africa”.]

Q: What can readers of this article do? Is there a way to volunteer and get involved?

A: Yes! Many pathologists volunteer, from fresh graduates to retired pathologists. Some come for just a few weeks, but some stay six months, or even a year. Volunteering to teach, train and do service work goes a long way to filling needs in these institutions. One major thing that pathologists can contribute in addition to service work is mentorship and teaching. It has an enormous impact on the trainees when they can benefit from an experienced pathologist, not only from signing out cases, but also having a role model and mentor. African pathologists often do not get the benefits that we take for granted -the value of attending conferences, continuing medical education, and interacting with our peers.

Research is another avenue in which it is possible to get involved – there are endless opportunities. For example, any tumor that you can imagine has probably not yet been fully characterized in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mbarrara, the residents do a research project as part of their graduation requirement and many have paired up with volunteer Pathologist mentors. Some have published their work. Currently the MGH is sponsoring two projects with residents in Mbarara – MSI in colorectal tumors and TMPRSS2-ERG in prostate cancers. In addition to resident projects, I have several research projects in Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania involving either placenta or autopsy studies. For example, we are looking at the effects of HIV infected mothers and placental health and how that relates to the child’s morbidity and mortality outcomes. My other projects are focused on studying the effects of poor air quality on placental health (many women use indoor stoves without proper ventilation) and similarly the placental effects of exposure to high concentration of pesticides (often lacking government regulation). To combat the infrequent performance of medical autopsies, and therefore lack of mortality data, I’m involved in a study that is exploring the use of minimally invasive autopsies and validating that data against a full autopsy. For all of these projects I engage and include local pathologists for training and mentoring in academic pathology.

The volunteers get a lot out of their service too – they see extremely interesting cases that are rarely seen in the US, and they have increased feelings of self-worth because they are really valued. It’s a very rewarding experience for all.

Another way to get involved is to advocate for global health partnerships in your home department, especially if you are in an academic center. Speak with the leadership to discuss getting involved globally, develop a budget, and advance opportunities for outreach. Make a global pathology contact and maintain continuity – offer support and help them advocate for pathology in their hospital, local government, and ministries of health.

Q: Your attention and focus could be used to serve in many areas; why focus on global health?

A: We are so fortunate in the USA that we can get a diagnosis that can guide treatment – when most of the world cannot! We should aim for equipoise, so there is a better chance for people to get the proper treatment with the right diagnosis. It really is not an unattainable task. It’s easy to get caught up in your own challenges here, but there are bigger challenges out there. If you go, you will see. You have to just go!


-Dana Razzano, MD is a Chief Resident in her third year in anatomic and clinical pathology at New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center and will be starting her fellowship in Cytopathology at Yale University in 2020. She was a top 5 honoree in ASCP’s Forty Under 40 2018 and was named to The Pathologist’s Power List of 2018. Follow Dr. Razzano on twitter @Dr_DR_Cells.

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