Ophthalmology's international ambassador in Iraq

October 1, 2007

Michael W. Brennan, MD, is the American Academy of Ophthalmology's international envoy. He is a member of the Committee of Secretaries and is part of the AAO's effort to remodel its international activities. All divisions of the AAO have a great stake in its international programs.

Key Points

Michael W. Brennan, MD, spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, serving as an aviator in Vietnam and an instructor of earth and space science at West Point before becoming an Army ophthalmologist.

Dr. Brennan spent another 20 years in private practice as a general ophthalmologist in Burlington, NC.

Now he's busy with the third phase of his career: being a diplomat.

"This is a wonderful position for me," he said. "I have great partners in my practice and am able to travel. I speak on behalf of the [AAO]. And this role coincides with my own side pursuits as well."

All AAO divisions have a great stake in its international programs, Dr. Brennan said-from developing new markets to finding meeting locations to sharing practice models. "There is a wealth of institutional material on a variety of topics to share with other countries," he said.

Dr. Brennan said he finds the role of diplomat perfect for him. "I'm not in academia; I don't research and publish. What I am is an ambassador who cares about the profession. I like to talk about the politics of medicine and practice patterns and to share clinical education."

His goal is to stimulate volunteerism, he said.

"I want to get my colleagues to visit other countries. Our international colleagues value our experience and insight," Dr. Brennan said. "They graciously receive us. It feels like we expect them to come here to learn. We should go to them to advise and consult."

Doctors in other countries are especially interested in learning how to deal with payers and in professional advocacy, representing the profession to their governments, he said.

Helping in Iraq

Dr. Brennan said he especially is concerned with the Middle East, principally Iraq.

In 2004, he helped organize the first international medical conference held in Iraq in more than 20 years. He recruited 30 doctors from the United States to meet with hundreds of Iraqi physicians in Baghdad for the Iraqi Medical Specialty Forum.

"I met 800 to 900 Iraqi doctors in my travels that year," said Dr. Brennan. "Many friendships were established." Iraqi doctors are hindered in their practices by the government, he said, adding that many have fled and most feel pressure to quit.

More recently, Dr. Brennan organized a national system of regional continuing medical education (CME) centers in Erbil in northern Kurdish Iraq, one of the country's safer regions. The program was so well-received that physicians in the southern part of the country expressed interest in establishing CME centers in their region. Dr. Brennan said he hopes the area will be stable enough soon to proceed with those plans.

The program invites international physicians to teach Iraqi physicians; specialties rotate monthly. The Iraqi government is interested in focusing on pediatric infectious disease, high-risk pregnancy, and burn management, for example.

The program's sponsor is the International Medical Corps, a non-governmental organization that has a low profile but is well-known in the region, Dr. Brennan said.

He calls this Medical Alliance for Iraq "just a bunch of volunteer doctors." But clearly, diplomacy is a huge part of the project. Dr. Brennan converses regularly with officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Health and keeps U.S. officials informed.