Abena Tannor, MBChB
Rehabilitation Programme Consultant | World Health Organization
Earlier this year, Dr. Abena Tannor completed the requirements and passed examinations to become the first fully accredited and trained family medicine and sports exercise and rehabilitation medicine fellow in Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa. She achieved this historic feat despite facing several challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of understanding by colleagues on what sports medicine is and how patients can benefit from the specialty care.
ACSM staff recently connected with Dr. Tannor to learn more about why she chose a career in family medicine and sports exercise and rehabilitation medicine, the significance of her accomplishment for the region and how ACSM membership has helped her.
- Can you tell us a little bit about your background and research?
I completed medical school in Ghana at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. I then travelled to the United Kingdom for a Master’s degree program in Rehabilitation at St. George’s University of London, graduating with distinction. Upon completion, I returned to Ghana and started the first locally led multidisciplinary rehabilitation medicine service in Ghana at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital with support from my mentor Dr. Andrew Haig while pursuing a residency program in family medicine. With support from ACSM Fellow Dr. Anthony Annan and Dr. Haig, I then lobbied for the establishment of the first Sports, Exercise and Rehabilitation Medicine fellowship program in Ghana under the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons. I also became the program’s first fellow. Currently, I am in Ghana assisting in the training of other fellows while working as a consultant with the World Health Organization Rehabilitation Program in Geneva, Switzerland.
- Why did you choose to pursue a career in family medicine and sports exercise and rehabilitation medicine?
Growing up I wanted to be a doctor, but I also wanted to care for people in a field which was underdeveloped or non-existent in Ghana to build and improve access. This led me to sports exercise and rehabilitation medicine. I pursued family medicine because that gave me the foundation in providing quality, undifferentiated and holistic patient-centered care required to be a good physician.
One of the major challenges I faced was introducing and explaining the specialty to colleagues and other health professionals as this was a novel specialty. Many believed sports medicine was only limited to soccer field work, and rehabilitation was only limited to mental health or physical therapy. This contributed to very few referrals from other physicians with patients who would otherwise have benefitted from the specialty. Another challenge linked to the poor understanding of the specialty was getting the needed support from the institution in which I worked. I had difficulties getting adequate human resource and logistics to work with, making patient care very difficult.
This accomplishment basically means that the individual, irrespective of gender or age who wants to be physically fit or engage in sports, will get a sports physician to provide guidance in how to go about it, prevent injuries and to manage any illnesses or injuries that may arise from these activities. In addition, any individual with a disabling condition or reduced function will now have access to a rehabilitation physician with a family medicine background who will provide comprehensive, coordinated and continuous care aimed at improving quality of life. What is unique about doing a fellowship in rehabilitation and sports medicine is that I also have the skills to provide medical care for persons engaged in disability sports including the Special Olympics.
This accomplishment has finally authenticated the training in Ghana and serves as an example to other physicians who are considering joining the specialty. Already, we have another fellow in training, and I am working hard to coordinate the training and provide guidance while advocating for more physicians to join the specialty. The training program can also serve as a blueprint for other African countries to use in training physicians. I also hope, through the ACSM and its global network, to reach out to members from and with links in African countries to replicate the international course and advocate for more training programs in Africa.
I have had several mentors along the way; however, Dr. Andrew Haig of the International Rehabilitation Forum has been with me from the beginning, encouraging me every step of the way, and continues to provide guidance post-fellowship. I can also never forget the immense contribution of following persons within ACSM who taught and pushed me to work harder and hosted me in their homes:
- Dr. Anthony Annan who first introduced me to sports medicine and has been a strong pillar of support
- Dr. Sharon Hame (UCLA)
- Dr. David Olson (University of Minnesota)
- Dr. Suzanne Hecht (University of Minnesota)
- Dr. John Hatzenbuehler (St. Luke’s Health System)
- How has your ACSM membership helped you?
My ACSM membership has given me a broader perspective of sports medicine, allowing me to learn from other sports physicians. It was through ACSM’s international course that I first met my mentors and got the opportunity to visit, work and gain an immense amount of experience in sports medicine.
- What advice do you have for students?
Never give up on your dream. There may be obstacles along the way, but if you have a passion for something, work hard toward it, trust God and in the end, your hard work will pay off.
- What’s one thing fellow ACSM members might be surprised to know about you?
I love to design! From designing and sewing my own clothes to designing assistive products for persons with disabilities.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
It has been a long and difficult journey being a trailblazer, but the long periods of studying and being away from family, the tears and prayers have eventually ended in praise. I have always had strong support from family, and this has played a major role in my success.
There is however a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of training sports physicians in Ghana. We need to pay particular attention to the quality of the training, as well as providing mentorship and opportunities for exchange programs. I believe with God on our side and with support from ACSM, then the Sports, Exercise and Rehabilitation Medicine fellowship program in Ghana will continue to grow.
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