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MD to EMBA: Using Medical Entrepreneurship for Women's Health

Sherry Thomas

Some of us like to spend our vacations relaxing under the sun. Others seek cultural enlightenment. Sherry Thomas travels to third-world countries to help young women reclaim their lives.

Thomas is a fellowship-trained urogynecologist—one of the few in Southern California. She has also earned a master’s degree in public health. Now she is an Executive MBA student in the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management. At heart she sees herself as an entrepreneur, and what she learns at the Drucker School helps her run her career—everything from her own private practice to volunteer work in Africa.

Urogynecology is a surgical sub-specialty of urology and gynecology focusing on repairing bladder disorders, vaginal prolapse, and other pelvic-floor dysfunctions in women. These conditions often lead to incontinence, which is not just embarrassing, but can create further physical damage, such as skin breakdown.

As unpleasant as incontinence is for a woman living anywhere, it is worse for those in third-world countries. Women living in rural areas often do not have access to a medical recourse to treat conditions like these. Even women living in urban areas face long delays before seeing a doctor, during which time they can be segregated from their families to live in cramped shelters amongst women with similar conditions. And even when these women finally get to a doctor, they might be too inexperienced to help.

This is where Thomas comes in. She had been to Africa three times and travelled to Uganda this spring for her fourth trip. Her specialty is repairing fistulas, a painful and nearly debilitating condition caused by complications in giving birth. When a woman’s labor is prolonged and the birth canal obstructed, blood supply to vaginal tissues and the bladder are cut off. Deprived of the oxygen and nutrients carried through blood cells, these tissues can die in a matter of minutes, ripping a hole (the “fistula”) through which urine passes uncontrollably. Rectal tissues can also tear, resulting in leakage of stool as well as urine. These tears can also get infected, causing permanent nerve damage.

Fistulas are virtually nonexistent in industrialized countries due to prenatal care and the availability of caesarian sections, but the United Nations Population Fund estimates that more than two million women worldwide suffer from them.

“Before I ever went over, I had been reading about the problems in Africa for years. I had heard different groups were traveling there to help, which I thought was great. So once I was invited, I jumped at the opportunity,” Thomas said.

In 2004, she was part of a delegation invited by Eritrea’s minister of public health to operate on women suffering from fistulas and, in the process, help train local Eritrean doctors. She paid her own way and used her vacation time to visit the tiny country in the horn of Africa, where she stayed for 10 days and operated on 20 women—the majority of whom were teenagers and had traveled up to 30 hours to see Thomas.

The following year she flew 36 hours to Niamey, the capital of Niger, for another 10-day trip, this time performing 32 surgeries. According to the International Organization of Women and Development, only six doctors in the country of 11 million were qualified to operate on women with fistulas at the time of Thomas’ visit.

In 2009, she traveled to Jos, Nigeria. Though this country— by far the most populous in Africa—is a major oil producer, she still found herself hampered by the poor infrastructure. “I remember we would be in the operating room doing surgery, and the power would go out,” she said. “We had to wear headlamps while we worked.”

On this nine-day trip she managed to repair 70 fistulas with her partner. That number is even more impressive considering their time constrictions. “We did surgery every day, from morning until evening. And that’s even with having us on curfew, because of security concerns,” Thomas said.

As life changing as these surgeries are for the women receiving them, they actually make up only up a small percentage of Thomas’ professional duties. She runs her own practice, performs surgeries at Tarzana Medical Center and Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, manages a staff of full-time and part-time employees, and does consulting and product development work with pharmaceutical companies. While it might seem that she would have no time to return to school to earn an EMBA, Thomas sees this as a personal investment into making herself a more efficient physician.

“What my EMBA allows me to do is design my career. To be more of what I want it to be,” she said. “I want to do more entrepreneurship. I want to do more volunteering and working in Africa, but I want to do that in a business sense so that it’s not just a non-governmental organization, which can be ineffective.”

This is especially important, as she plans on elevating her volunteer work in Africa to include administrative duties. As she knows first-hand, there are many people and industries in America willing to donate their time and medical services to third-world countries, but the organization is lacking. Her goal is to create a relationship with a specific area in Africa, and then set up the infrastructure to deliver the much-needed medical help.

“There are pharmaceutical companies that have done tremendous product development for women’s health. They would love to show that they are using that for humanitarian needs, but they don’t have the venue to do it in. Then there are medical schools that produce great physicians who can provide services. And public-health schools have students and fellows who have the knowledge to extrapolate what they know to third-world countries,” Thomas said. “With my EMBA training I now know I can reach out to these groups and provide the guidance to get them working together and effectively to help the people who need it the most.”

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