Dr Sanong Thongsana: Australia Awards alumnus leads at the forefront of COVID-19

Australia Awards alumnus, Dr Sanong Thongsana, is leading a medical response team within the Ministry of Health in the fight against #COVID19. His team is on standby and responsible for containing the virus and treating patients at Mittaphab Hospital, designated as one of the two main hospitals dealing with Covid-19 cases in Vientiane. As a Master of Medical Science graduate from the University of Tasmania (2000) he cites determination and endurance as necessary skills in his position as Director of Mittaphab Hospital which he developed during his postgraduate education in Australia.

Looking back on his days as a Masters student in Hobart, Dr Thongsana recalls that the UTAS had a very good culture of helping and supporting international students. A key feature of studying at UTAS was the blend of independent learning with an excellent group of researchers he could call on for support and advice.

Dr Thongsana’s time at UTAS was formative in making him the person he is today. ‘When you have experienced self-directed hard work and independence or autonomy, you understand that determination and perseverance pays off.’ These traits areevident in his current role where he is a leader to more than one thousand staff, stating ‘I think most people trust me because of my commitment to self-development and self-improvement – they know I never stop doing these things’.

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Dr Thongsana was one of the committee members working to translate documents and develop guidelines for the case management and control of SARS in Laos. Dr Thongsana’s selection to undertake further training at the Centre for Communicable Diseases Control and Prevention in 2006 in Atlanta, USA, was recognition of his strong qualifications and capacity to further contribute to public health and safety in Lao PDR.

Dr Thongsana is concerned about the many health challenges facing Laos today, particularly limited laboratory and healthcare infrastructure, but is keen to turn this into an opportunity for the Lao public health system. Regarding COVID-19 in Laos, “Luckily, we don’t have any cluster outbreak yet. However, preparation is always better than cure. My ambition is to acquire a new 100-ward centre that can treat patients and quarantine any suspected persons with new coronavirus.”, says Dr Thongsana.

As a firm advocate of building good relationships, he sees that effective communication to avoid or manage conflict is critically important, especially as a manager of people. ‘Instead of criticizing staff, I work to support and encourage individuals by providing constructive feedback and advice that supports and inspires change; this is a key lesson in good leadership that I most value’.

Dr Thongsana works with his team to adjust, design and plan everything to deal with the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation, including measures to keep staff safe. One initiative was to create a separate, secure entrance and airlock to put on and remove personal protective equipment (PPE). Resources (including personnel, medical equipment and health facilities) are limited, for example PPS costs USD40-45 for each kit and are not reusable, so when doctors visit patients 2 to 3 times a day, many kits are used. Mittaphab Hospital has received support from the Government of Lao PDR, as well as private sector and development partners, including the Australian Government.

Reminiscing further about his time in Hobart, Dr Thongsana recalls the good relationship his family had with Australians and a close group of around ten Lao students who his family associated with in addition to the Hmong community in Hobart. ‘I lived with other Lao students and it was fun to have each other for support; we cooked and shared Lao food and the Hmong community generously gave us fish and meat from their own farms.Dr Thongsana is a clear example of the enduring personal connections made as an AustralianAwards scholar – he and his family are still in contact with the Lao friends who lived together in Hobart 20 years ago.

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