E O'Neil, left, as a fourth year medical student in the OR at Makiungu Hospital in Singida, Tanzania, January 1987.
Omni Med began in 1994, ironically enough because of an inability to find a way back to East Africa. I had worked in a mission hospital in Tanzania in 1987 (that medical ward is the background to this page) as a fourth year medical student at George Washington University. Seeing the poverty and suffering of so many was a transforming experience; I sought an opportunity to return. Once I had completed residency and paid back enough student loans to afford a return visit, I looked for the “book” that would guide me back to Africa. However, that book then did not exist. While working at Nairobi’s Nazareth Hospital in the winter of 1994, I began to envision a text that would decipher world orders of health inequality, list all of the organizations that sought medical personnel for overseas projects, and explain in a user-friendly manner exactly how one travels abroad and works effectively in poor communities. I also hoped to evoke icons like Albert Schweitzer, Tom Dooley and Paul Farmer to inspire a larger swath of health profession to serve.
Upon my return from Kenya, I began a three-year Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship that afforded me the opportunity to study broadly and expand the scope of the text. One of the fellows in my group was Jim Yong Kim from Partners In Health. Jim introduced me to Paul Farmer, and thus became a lifelong interest on my part in the philosophy and approach that PIH took to this challenge of global health inequity. Omni Med was initially adopted as an NGO by PIH, and became a free-standing NGO in 1998. The PIH influence remains, and those who have worked with both organizations see readily the ongoing influence of Drs Kim and Farmer on all that we do.
The earliest quest was to write a book on health, poverty, and global service. However, simply researching and writing a text would not suffice. I wanted an opportunity to develop clinical programs directly overseas. In September 1997, MGH's Dr Tom Durant introduced me to an impressive group from the Hingham Rotary Club, including Richard Bridges, Harold Lincoln, Sheldon Daly and others. They invited Dr Durant and me to travel to Belize to advise them on their medical equipment donation program, which by that time had topped $1 million in equipment sent. We traveled throughout the country, and a number of health providers and government officials discussed the need for ongoing continuing medical education programs, of which there were none at the time. Upon my return home, Jim Kim referred an aspiring Harvard medical student named James Eadie to help set up the logistics for the program. Thus began the Belize Cooperative Medical Education Program, through which we sent physicians to Belize to 6-8 different sites around the country to teach their Belizean counterparts. (For details, please see Past Programs/ Belize elsewhere on this website.) The program lasted from 1999 to 2009, when the Belizean Medical and Dental Society developed their own solid educational program, making our work there no longer necessary.
The Program in Belize needed an NGO to coordinate it. During a visit to Boston, a great friend and role model, Dr Roger Sublett suggested that I form an NGO. He became the first board member and has served as an inspiration and guiding force ever since. Other board members, including Robert Sparks, Harry Barnes, Kathryn Johnson and Lessa Phillips have all had major influence on our direction and substance. My high school Latin Teacher, Samuel Demerit, then suggested a name, Omni Med, based, rather understandably, on an abbreviation of the Latin word Medicina (medicine, health), and Omni, literally translated as "for all." The words, loosely translated mean health for all.
From the success of our program in Belize, a health official from Guyana asked us to talk with the Guyanese Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy. Dr Eadie, then a resident in Emergency Medicine at the combined Brigham and Women’s-MGH Program, traveled to Guyana in October 2002 and began to develop the Guyana Cooperative Health Education Program. Through multiple subsequent visits, Dr Eadie, along with Dr John O’Brien, developed an educational program in Guyana similar to the model in Belize. In June 2004, Dr John Varallo, an obstetrician who had traveled through the Omni Med Belize program one year earlier, traveled to Guyana. He found that the country had no screening program for the early lesions that can lead to cervical cancer. Since cervical cancer is the most frequent cancer associated with HIV—a huge problem in Guyana—Dr Varallo began develop a screening program with officials from the Ministry of Health and health personnel from JHPIEGO, based at Johns Hopkins University. In 2008, the program become a national model, and Dr Varallo and the program eventually migrated to JHPIEGO, where it remains still.
In Kenya, our colleague and good friend Father Bill Fryda built St Mary’s, an impressive hospital on the edge of the Kibera slum, home to 800,000 –1,000,000 people living in extreme poverty. Omni Med partnered with Dr Fryda for a number of years, eventually sending over $1 million worth of medical supplies. St Mary’s has built one of East Africa’s largest medical education centers.
In the spring of 2006, the American Medical Association published the two books that had required years of research and writing. Awakening Hippocrates: A Primer on Health, Poverty, and Global Service, and A Practical Guide to Global Health Service. Paul Farmer was kind enough to pen the Preface and the books dove deep into the combined topics in the title. The first book traced the evolution of health in the developed world, and then traced the rich world's historical responses to remaining health inequity. The bulk of the book involved a deep dive into what I termed the "forces of disparity" that fueled ongoing inequity globally; issues such as trade, wealth inequity, racism, governance, militarism, sexism, nature, infectious diseases, among others. Two chapters explore in depth the history of AIDS, and the evolution of the human rights as a central tenet of a broad-based approach to solving health inequity globally. Several chapters offered biographical portraits of Tom Dooley, Albert Schweitzer, Tom Durant, Peter Allen (Belize), Jim Kim & Paul Farmer in an attempt to offer inspiration to those contemplating global health service. The two books have sold over 7000 copies to date and have, hopefully, catalyzed greater involvement in understanding and action in global health inequity. The Omni Med database of global health service opportunities is an extensive and detailed database of global health service opportunities and with its introduction on-line through this website, we hope that many more health providers will get involved. Of note, the site requires significant updating, which we will be undertaking soon.
In the spring of 2007, I was invited to chair a working group at the Brookings Institution’s International Volunteering and Service Initiative on the health workforce shortage in Sub-Saharan Africa. Following two years of research and exploration in Uganda, we developed our Community Empowerment in Health Program. This is a unique model aimed at placing both health and non-health oriented volunteers in a setting in which they can make a measurable impact on the lives of local villagers. In many ways, this program is the culmination of all of our work to date. It borrows extensively from our work training health providers in Belize and Guyana, from understanding the brilliant designs of Father Bill Fryda in Kenya, and from the deep exploration of health, poverty and social justice mined in Awakening Hippocrates. This program is ongoing and expanding significantly every year. As of 2017, over 100 US volunteers have assisted our Ugandan staff of 6 to train 1250 community health workers, conduct three clinical trials, construct 32 protected water sources, build over 6000 cookstoves with our partners in the Cookstove Project, and distribute hundreds of bed nets. The work continues apace and we welcome all those interested in either volunteering with us or supporting our work. More details about the Uganda program can be found on the Uganda program page.
Omni Med continues to grow and we are continually expanding our work and reach. Uganda is the focus of Omni Med's current efforts. As it has been from our earliest days, our focus remains on global health equity. While we are a smaller organization, our approach remains in combining direct service, rigorous academic evaluation, community empowerment, cooperation with host government, and a strong programming that instills a clear-eyed social justice oriented approach to all in solving such great global challenges as this. Those interested in joining in our work should contact me directly at . Those interested in learning more about us or enhancing their understanding of the complex worlds of poverty, health inequity and the global health realm should consider purchasing Awakening Hippocrates or a Practical Guide to Global Health Service. All author royalties go toward Omni Med programs.
-Edward O'Neil, Jr., M.D..
Some Major Influences on Omni Med and our Philosophical Approach: above Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim; below left Albert Schweitzer, below right Tom Dooley
Above left Rhena Schweitzer, whom I got to know while researching and writing about her father Albert; E O'Neil, and Antje Lemke, who translated Albert Schweitzer's autobiography Out of My Life and Thought; photo taken on 10/23/99