Expanding the boundaries of personalized medicine with Dr. Ahmed Hassan

Article by Sonja Elsaid

Graphic design by Sherry An

Today, personalized medicine involves leveraging breakthroughs in science and technology to tailor medical treatments to each patient. It relies on understanding how a person’s unique genetic and biological traits predispose them to risk factors for certain diseases. It enables healthcare workers to better predict condition susceptibility and customize safer treatments in order to improve patient care.

The public’s expectations of healthcare, however, do not necessarily center on technological advancements. Instead, patients prefer the holistic approach to treatment. To discuss the successes of developing such a holistic program that encourages seeking treatment for addictions in the Canadian Muslim Community, IMS Magazine has interviewed Dr. Ahmed N. Hassan. Dr. Hassan is an Addiction Psychiatrist and Clinician Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, and Associate Professor at the Departments of Pharmacology and Toxicology and Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Ahmed N. Hassan
Addiction Psychiatrist and Clinician Scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry
Associate Professor at the Departments of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto

Photo provided by Dr. Ahmed Hassan

“I am passionate about helping people, and I want to make an impact in their lives,” said Dr. Hassan. “I am also interested in exploring different treatment modalities that integrate biopsychosocial and spiritual influences on health. What drew me to psychiatry was the ability to take a multidisciplinary approach to care.” His passion for psychiatry motivated Dr. Hassan to complete a psychiatry residency, mood and anxiety fellowship, and addiction fellowship at the University of Toronto and even obtain a Master’s degree in Public Health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “Public health has a special place in my heart,” Dr. Hassan echoed. ” We need to understand why people regularly drink alcohol before treating the addiction. Research on prevention informs policies and saves lives. Public health knowledge helps prevent substance use disorders or eases them by anticipating the risk factors.”

Dr. Ahmed Hassan’s passion for treating and preventing, sometimes deadly, addictions led him to develop a spiritually-adapted addiction psychoeducational program delivered to Muslims in the mosque setting. Dr. Hassan explains, “Muslims are a highly marginalized community in Canada. They are faced with discrimination and Islamophobia in general leading to mistrust of the healthcare system. They experience difficulties connecting and communicating with others to access treatment. Also, Islam forbids drinking alcohol and using illicit substances. In the Muslim community, there is so much stigma towards addictions. So, when addiction occurs, it stays private, and those with the addiction become trapped. They do not know where to go for help. When they eventually seek help, the addiction is usually medically and psychologically very complicated.” 

To overcome the barrier related to mistrust towards Western teachings, the psychoeducational program involved a seminar that integrated readings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings from the Hadith with scientific evidence about addictions. It emphasized the parallel between the gradual prohibition of alcohol in the Quran to different stages of alcohol treatment. The program promoted thinking of addiction as a disease that needs treatment, rather than something that brings shame. By integrating the Islamic content, the program also reminded individuals that asserting incredible compassion and understanding when dealing with people with addiction follows Islamic principles and values. 

Furthermore, Dr. Hassan also conducted a study that assessed the program’s impact by measuring attitudes towards addictions before and after the program. The research results indicated significant improvements in the knowledge of addictions and an increase in positive attitudes towards addiction. More participants expressed their willingness to seek professional help and support others with addiction. Dr. Hassan and his team also received valuable information from the various stakeholders on improving the study and program participation in the Muslim community. 

          “At the beginning of the program,” Dr. Hassan describes, “we thought about renting a private hall where our program would be held. However, we realized that the best time and place to hold our seminars were at the mosque after the Friday prayer. People socialized then, talked to the Imam, and learned about the program. Having the program at the mosque brought a holistic experience. Another challenge was getting people to trust us not to share their research study responses and personal information with others. We even had to modify our consent form to emphasize that no personal information would be released to their employers and the community.” 

Dr. Hassan also learned that conducting a needs assessment prior to designing the study was essential for recruiting the Muslim community members. “When engaging religious communities, it is imperative to share the content of your program to gain support from the religious leaders. Then, have an informal conversation with the community members and various healthcare workers that provide treatment. They all have a different perspective on applying the intervention to the Muslim community. You, as a leader of the program, have to listen, gather information, and develop a plan that would mitigate the cultural, religious barriers, fears, and prejudices towards seeking treatment.” Dr. Hassan also stressed the need to be creative and versatile with the knowledge of different health modalities so that they could be integrated efficiently into a holistic program. “Personalized medicine is the way of the future in healthcare,” echoed Dr. Hassan. “But, it is not confined to just science and technology. It constantly changes, and makes us consider everything that influences health. To tailor the treatment to a particular patient population, you have to keep expanding the boundaries of what personalized medicine is known to be today. As a leader of such a holistic program, you also need to be skilled enough to be able to deliver such holistic healthcare.”

When asked how to become a  successful researchers and/or clinicians in the holistic healthcare environment, Dr. Hassan offered the following advice to IMS students: “Keep your mind open about learning new skills. Learn about different research methods. Be persistent and never give up when trying new things. Eventually, you will integrate all your skills in the field you choose to pursue. Also, take the opportunity of being an IMS student. It is a great environment to learn from such professionally diverse faculty.”