Dr. Lia Sanodze – Georgia FELTP Improving Public Health While Responding to COVID-19
Lia Sanodze, MD, is the chief specialist at National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC) in Tbilisi, Georgia. In this role, she assesses health care network preparedness and provides hospital staff training in infection prevention and control measures. As a graduate of the South Caucasus Office (SCO) Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program (FELTP), she uses the skills she gained from the program, as well as her years of professional experience to strengthen Georgia’s public health system and train new epidemiologists.
Dr. Sanodze recently shared how her training in the FETP program has benefited her career as an epidemiologist in Georgia. Her reflections are detailed below.
As a child, I always wanted to be a doctor. I saw myself taking care of hospital patients and providing care for those in need. I went to medical school and graduated from Tbilisi State Medical University. After graduation, I worked as a clinician in my hometown of Khoni in several settings, including medical ambulance service, an outpatient clinic, and a hospital. Later, I worked as head of the District Health Service. During this time, a small and persistent voice in the back of my mind kept calling out to me. It would take some time before I could figure out what it meant.
By chance, in 2004, I attended a meeting that featured expert epidemiologists from Georgia and other locations. I remember listening breathlessly to their discussions, while clinging to every word and craving more information. Finally, I understood what would quiet that voice in my head! I had found my true calling – public health and epidemiology. In 2005, I took a training course that changed my career direction from clinical medicine to epidemiology. The training allowed me to earn a state certificate in epidemiology and provided useful theoretical knowledge, but I was still in need of practical experience.
Practical Experience Through FELTP
In 2009, Georgia was beginning a CDC-sponsored Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program (FELTP). A former mentor who knew I was seeking more practical epidemiology skills recommended that I apply. Acceptance into the program was very competitive, but luckily, I was selected for the first cohort of the South Caucasus Office (SCO) FELTP. I am forever grateful that I was in the right place at the right time for this fantastic opportunity. FELTP significantly improved my theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and professional vision. It taught me to look at issues from different perspectives and helped me better understand this surprisingly logical and analytical field. FELTP also gave me the chance to work with national and international experts who helped me understand how my professional capabilities could be applied to the extraordinary challenges of public health.
As a resident of SCO FELTP, I participated in hands-on training and completed two projects that further enhanced my skills. Evaluation of the Brucellosis Surveillance System in Georgia and the investigation of an anthrax outbreak in Kvemo Kartli Region, 2009, provided real-world, practical experience that significantly improved my analytical skills, which became a foundation for my future work.
My experience in FETLP has been a crucial career building block. I learned to effectively evaluate public health surveillance systems, identify gaps in those systems, and apply effective interventions. I also learned to conduct and analyze rapid surveys. FELTP also offered a course in basic Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which combines geographical features with other data to analyze and assess real-world problems. This course sparked and inspired my interest to learn more. Today, I frequently use GIS for various public health issues. The FELTP Epi Info advanced training course also significantly improved my statistical data skills, a crucial part of my daily work.
Leading COVID-19 Control Efforts
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, I knew I could contribute to the response, and felt prepared through my training and experience. Along with other FELTP graduates, I am a member of the COVID Emergency Team. The team actively works to control the spread of the disease through activities, including preparing and developing national guidelines based on international recommendations, identifying and investigating cases, contact tracing, cluster identification, and developing disease control measures. I prepared a basic predictive model for the possible spread and control of COVID-19 in Georgia, allowing the team to effectively plan and control disease spread within our country. In addition, I am now involved in the group that is implementing a post-crisis plan designed to strengthen Georgia’s COVID-19 public health response and improve the country’s preparedness for a second wave of the virus. This process includes training and mentoring new public health center specialists, training health care workers in infection prevention and control, and strengthening administrative control measures at health care facilities.
FELTP as a Game-Changer
Since graduating from FELTP, I never stopped engaging and being directly involved with the program. Today, I serve as a trainer for the newly-developed three-month FELTP Frontline program. Since 2018, I have trained a total of 32 trainees from the Public Health Centers of Georgia. I also helped adapt FELTP training materials to meet Georgia’s specific needs. In addition, I have had the privilege of mentoring five residents and supporting them with on-the-job training and coaching. I also regularly advise frontline program graduates and current trainees on their daily work.
CDC’s direct support of SCO FELTP has enhanced its success, not only through funding, but by providing high-level experts who train residents and graduates. In the next five years, I see FELTP graduates playing a vital public health response role globally. I will continue to support FELTP fellows through teaching and mentoring, and by recommending bright candidates for the program.
For me, participation in FELTP was a professional game-changer. FELTP increased my professional self-confidence and made my life far more interesting. It taught me the principles of teamwork, the need to respect others’ opinions, effective listening, and working with others to make the right decision. I met new friends and colleagues across the nation and borders. I know our nation’s public health system has benefitted tremendously from FELTP, and I am forever grateful.