Change Starts Small: International Palliative Care Workshops and Virtual Mentors Program Come to Morocco

Oct 26, 2015

ASCO International supports numerous educational programs designed to strengthen cancer care in low-resource countries through collaborations between oncologists around the world and ASCO volunteers who coordinate activities, serve as mentors, and teach courses on such topics as palliative care, clinical trials, and multidisciplinary cancer management.

Miklos Simon, MD, a medical oncologist and hematologist at Compass Oncology in Portland, Oregon, describes his experience as a volunteer for  two of ASCO International’s program—as an instructor for the International Palliative Care Workshop (IPCW) in Fez, Morocco, and as a mentor in the Virtual Mentors Program.

ICPWs aim to strengthen skills in how to communicate effectively,  assess pain and manage symptoms and medication, deliver bad news, and implement palliative care services in participants’ hospitals and throughout the region.

The Virtual Mentors Program pairs early-career ASCO members with a mentor outside of their country or region, connecting by email, phone, and video-conferencing. The goal of the program is to help recent trainees develop their clinical and research interests and to take their first steps towards fulfilling their career goals.

AC: What do you see as the role for organizations such as ASCO to support career development and cancer care internationally?

MS: I have volunteered overseas for 5 years, starting in Kolkata, India, on my own before becoming involved with ASCO. I found that as rewarding as volunteering by yourself can be, it’s far easier and more productive to work with a team. ASCO provides vital logistics support and has the infrastructure to support ongoing collaboration that continues after the individual volunteer has left the country. Each region of the world has strengths and weaknesses in cancer care, and organizations like ASCO have the infrastructure to analyze the needs of each country before organizing programs there. ASCO makes it possible for ongoing collaborations to take root and gives volunteers the opportunity to develop personal connections with doctors and cancer care providers overseas.

I began my collaboration with ASCO first with the International Cancer Corps (ICC), then as a Virtual Mentor, and then with the Multidisciplinary Cancer Management Courses (MCMC) and Cancer Prevention courses. The ICC needs people who follow after each other, each one planting a seed that will grow. We accomplish more by working together with ASCO than we would be able to do individually.

AC: Can you describe your experience with the IPCW Morocco?

MS: The International Palliative Care Workshop in Fez, Morocco, on September 3-5, 2015, was one of the best conferences that I have ever been to. The preparatory logistics by the local organizers were excellent, and the reception from the attendees was very positive. Morocco has an interest in oncology and offers training and specialization after medical school for new physicians. This means that Morocco has a larger pool of physicians with oncology training, unlike many developing countries. However, Morocco lacks palliative care infrastructure. The kinds of pain medications available in the United States aren’t accessible there, and there is a different mentality towards talking about pain management. It is important to be sensitive to cultural differences during these kinds of conferences but to still be able to bring up difficult issues. We have to educate cancer care providers that it is okay to talk openly about cancer and pain management.

AC: Tell us about the collaboration fostered by the Virtual Mentors Program.

MS: I have worked with my Virtual Mentee, Zineb Benbrahim, MD, an oncologist in Hassan II University Hospital, in Fez, for 3 years. Our professional relationship has grown with time. Initially we worked on  some abstracts together, then last  year I asked if she would be interested in contributing to Global Perspectives on Cancer (a book I was editing  at the time), and she wrote a chapter on oncology in Morocco. The IPCW in Morocco feels like the culmination of our mentor/mentee relationship. She has grown and I look forward to continuing to work with her.

AC: What was the most positive aspect of your Virtual Mentor experience?

MS: I truly enjoy education, and it has been wonderful to see how my mentee has grown and thrived in the medical oncologist role. When I met Dr. Benbrahim through the Virtual Mentors Program, she was in her final year of her oncology fellowship. She is a very well-qualified professional, and it’s impressive how much she has accomplished given that there are more challenges in Morocco than in the United States.

AC: As part of the Virtual Mentors Program, are you planning any future collaborations with your mentee?

MS: Dr. Benbrahim has grown to the point that she doesn’t need me to work as closely with her as she did before. I see our relationship evolving to working on projects and collaborating together, and I will always be available for backup and advice. We are planning to hold another course 2 years from now in Morocco, focusing on gastrointestinal cancer and a palliative care refresher.

AC: What would you like other oncologists to know about the Virtual Mentors Program?

MS: It has been a very rewarding experience to work with Dr. Benbrahim as a Virtual Mentor, and I believe that it is a good example of what the mentor/mentee relationship should be. It starts small, like with reviewing abstracts, and then each step builds upon the next until you have a deeply established professional relationship and can collaborate on conferences. I love education, and the developing world needs our expert knowledge. You have to adjust your approach based on the country’s culture. This is challenging work, but I find it interesting and rewarding.

AC: What lasting effects do you think IPCW Morocco might have?

MS: I think that the IPCW Morocco course helped local doctors and providers understand the importance of palliative care. The social climate of not discussing pain management is a challenge, but change can start small and grow to a nationwide scale. It is important to have family support for patients with cancer, and developing a home hospice system is an important goal. The personal links established at this conference between doctors and professionals from around the world will help the doctors in Morocco to make changes. My passion is education, and I find it very gratifying to see such a positive response from the participants at the conference.

Back to Top