Dr. Rob Fowler
Internist and critical care physician
2017 recipient of the Royal College’s Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award
- Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto
- Senior Scientist, Sunnybrook Research Institute
- Program Director, Clinical Epidemiology & Health Care Research, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Prior to receiving our award, Dr. Fowler had already set examples for excellence in clinical care during the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2009/2010 H1N1 pandemic.
“Rob actually escorted me into the red zone the first time I went in, watched me don, watched me go in, kept an eye on me while I was there, and didn’t leave me until after I had fully doffed and left,” said Dr. Adrienne Chan, FRCPC, a specialist in infectious diseases who worked with Dr. Fowler in West Africa during the Ebola response. “As a colleague and as a person, it’s very meaningful to understand that somebody’s watching over you and that someone genuinely cares.”
A Canadian Ebola Fighter
Dr. Rob Fowler is the 2017 recipient of the Royal College’s Teasdale-Corti Humanitarian Award. Rob took time off from his day job as a critical care physician to donate a year to the mission of the World Health Organization (WHO). Little did he know that he would be one of the first international physicians to arrive in West Africa in March 2014 on the threshold of the Ebola outbreak to help care for patients with Ebola Virus Disease.
Advocacy for life-saving, supportive care
Working alongside national and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) health care workers at Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea, Rob and his colleagues pushed for new clinical protocols for the care of patients with Ebola Virus Disease, which was historically associated with a 70 to 90 per cent mortality rate. They focused on a much more aggressive, supportive method of care than had commonly been delivered to these patients. This is the kind of care that we take for granted in Canada — fluid resuscitation for severe dehydration, and support for electrolyte abnormalities and organ dysfunctions that accompany critical illness. Rob and his colleagues showed the world that these strategies would help patients survive Ebola Virus Disease long enough for their own body to clear the virus.
“These Patients Don’t Need to Die”
While Rob’s role in West Africa was primarily to help care for patients, as a University of Toronto researcher, he also understood that clinical anecdote and opinion is easily ignored until it’s transformed into a hypothesis that is investigated, reviewed and put into print. In Africa, he pushed for ethics oversight of clinical data collection in the first treatment units, alongside clinical care. He and his West African colleagues published early descriptions of Ebola Virus Disease in many landmark publications, delivering the message that “these patients don’t need to die.” Their advocacy for aggressive supportive care was reflected in the peer-reviewed literature, such as The New England Journal of Medicine (PDF), but also extensively by the lay media. Rob was an advocate for continued improvement in clinical care in The New York Times and other media throughout 2014 and 2015.
A great team makes the greatest impact
The outbreak was expanding exponentially throughout the summer of 2014 with an alarming infection and death rate among national clinicians. Dr. Fowler recruited nearly 100 individual clinicians, including Canadian doctors and nurses, to the early Ebola response. Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières were providing terrific support across West Africa, but their human resources were maxed out. Against this backdrop, the World Health Organization put the call out to other international medical organizations to join the battle. In addition to Médecins Sans Frontières, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Red Cross and the Canadian Armed Forces all responded, as did ongoing scores of individual Canadian clinicians. Rob, his colleagues and others helped to mentor hundreds of individual health workers on safe, front-line medical care. As the in-country clinical capability grew, they were also able to train thousands of local, pan-African and international health care workers throughout the fall and winter of 2014/2015.
“It’s terrific that every year the Royal College acknowledges the humanitarian work of physicians and surgeons,” said Dr. Rob Fowler, FRCPC. “While privileged to be a recipient, this isn’t an individual award, it’s an endorsement of the countless people and groups who do this sort of work every day.”