Dr Ponndara Ith

Dr Ponndara Ith

Doctor of Philosophy in Health (2013)

Head, Bureau of Academic and Training Affairs, Faculty of Medicine, University of Health Sciences, Cambodia

UTS Alumni Award for Excellence 2018 – Faculty of Health

Students in Cambodia who undertake a Doctor of Medicine study up to four years longer than their Australian counterparts and get little practical experience. As head of the medicine faculty’s Bureau of Academic and Training Affairs at Phnom Penh’s University of Health Sciences, Dr Ponndara Ith is determined to change the way doctors are trained in his home country.

“When my colleagues get sick, I ask them where they’re going for treatment and most middle-or-high-income earners say they’re going to Vietnam or Thailand,” he says. “Why is it that doctors with eight years of training are not providing quality healthcare?” The answer, he says, are courses that prioritise learning content over competencies and a lack of research work – even professors aren’t required to publish papers.

Ith grew up in Prey Veng, one of the country’s poorest provinces, at the time of the Khmer Rouge. A good student, he was awarded a university scholarship and trained as a clinician and general surgeon. He still practises medicine, returning to his home town on weekends to provide subsidised healthcare for up to 50 patients a day.

“Change has been slow but mortality rates are dropping and Cambodia is on track to meet the World Health Organization’s 2020 target.”

In 2003, Ith was granted an Australian Development Scholarship to study a Master of Public Health. Few Cambodians are trained in public health and Ith saw a need for better healthcare policy. To his delight, his son is currently studying public health.

Six years later, while serving as Chief of a provincial health department, Ith was selected to undertake a PhD on a prestigious Australia Awards scholarship. Beginning his thesis at UNSW before transferring to UTS, he used the opportunity to examine clinical practices in Cambodian labour wards. The maternal mortality rate in his home country is among the highest in South-East Asia; at the time of his research, there were 206 deaths for every 100,000 live births.

Returning to Cambodia, Ith set about reforming maternal care in public hospitals. Among his strategies are improvements to hygiene standards, preventing unnecessary medical intervention and encouraging a more professional manner among birth attendants.

Maternal care is subsidised by the government but, says Ith, “most women prefer to use traditional birth attendants because of the attitudes of our midwives and because they don’t allow the person to be accompanied during labour.” Change has been slow but mortality rates are dropping and Cambodia is on track to meet the World Health Organization’s 2020 target of 130 deaths per 100,000 live births.

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