Throughout his illustrious career as one of the Philippines’ most outstanding physicians, Dr. Ernesto Domingo has raked in countless awards.  But because of his steadfast pursuit of “health for all” and because of his Greatness of Spirit, he received Asia’s Premier Prize and Highest Honor, The Ramon Magsaysay Award.

The road less taken is often rocky. Those who choose financially unrewarding options often earn

taunts. Still, Dr. Ernesto O. Domingo would not settle for fortune that was his alone.  He was born in the Philippines to a father whom he described as a “simple bookkeeper”, and a mother who came from a clan of fisherfolk.  The highlight of his childhood was the Second World War. His youth was spent in the relatively peaceful if paranoid era of the Cold War on the global front, with pockets of insurgency in a Southeast Asia lately freed from colonial rule.

In profile, Domingo’s curriculum vitae looks like that of any other doctor afflicted with an excess of adrenalin. The career trajectory looks like a straight, steadily rising line.  It is actually, a line made up of many points of light. The basics: he earned his degree in Medicine at the University of the Philippines in 1961, then specializing in Internal Medicine at the Philippine General Hospital. This was followed by specialization in Gastroenterology Hepatology at the Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.   It is an institution which boasts eleven Nobel laureates affiliated with its School of Medicine. Case Western ranks in the Top 25 among research-oriented  medical schools in the U.S.

Pursuing his chosen field, Dr. Domingo conducted  investigations on the liver, particularly schistosome granuloma and its role in hepatosplenic disease, and the epidemiology and control of Hepatitis . His research on the treatment of liver cancer is reputed to be most extensive.  To the uninvolved layman, this would be of interest only to doctors.  To the cancer patient and his family, it is of critical importance.  Liver cancer is the third most common cancer among

Filipinos, second most common in men and sixth in women.

Building Reputation and Family

The Domingo house must be wallpapered with Awards, plaques, and certificates of appreciation:  Academician from the Academy of Science and Technology Philippines (1992); IBM Science and Technology Award; Science Achievement Award in Medicine, NRCP; Outstanding Researcher, UP and UPMAS; Outstanding Health Research Award, PCHRD;  awards from different medical societies, and the Philippine Red Cross.

A landmark achievement was his organizing and leading the Liver Study Group (LSG) which conducted major studies on viral hepatitis including hepatitis A, B, C, D, E and G. Throughout, he was Professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine in Manila.  In 1984, he got the Distinguished Teacher Award from the Philippine College of Physicians.  He became Chancellor of UP Manila.  The Most Distinguished Physician Award of the Philippine College of Physicians came  in May 13, 1991.   In June 1992, he was named “University Professor” (an academic deity), UP College of Medicine.    He was eventually appointed as Director of the UP Postgraduate School of Medicine.

Sometime in those years, he found time to meet and marry Carmelita Fagela, a pediatrician.  They have three sons and one daughter.  The daughter, Angela F.Domingo-Salvana, practices in the field of General Internal Medicine.

Dr. Domingo was elected President from 1986-1988 of the Philippine Society of Gastroenterology where his work was deemed an invaluable service to society. His gift for research showed itself as early as 1964  when he won a prize for research in Applied Science, investigating “Parasitic Cirrhosis among Filipinos.”

In 1981, he got the Award “The Most Outstanding Scientific Paper of 1981” for work on “The Clinical Profile of Hepatocellular Carcinoma in Filipinos. In 1984, his pre-eminence as researcher was recognized with the  “1984 Outstanding Researcher Award, Liver Disease” University of the Philippines.  Nor is he a parochial, hometown eminence. The first schistosomiasis research laboratory at the University of the Philippines Manila  set up by Dr. Domingo with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, is the precursor of the schistosomiasis laboratory at the Philippine’s Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, a world-class facility.  His work as author on at least 122 original research papers published locally and abroad has brought him widespread recognition.

2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ernesto Domingo

The Clinical Epidemiology Unit he established with a Rockefeller Foundation grant is now both an institute and a department with a graduate program, and considered an important national asset.  Dr. Kerr White, the physician behind the concept of present day epidemiology, and consultant on social medicine, said of Dr. Domingo in his book Healing the Schism, Epidemiology, Medicine and the Public Health, “Another example of the importance of making epidemiological principles and skills available to clinicians in their day-to-day work is provided by Professor Ernesto Domingo, then Chairman of the Department of Medicine.”

Dr. Domingo’s successful championing of the Clinical Epidemiology Unit was acknowledged when he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia-based INCLEN, the overall administrative organization for the network of Clinical Epidemiological Units worldwide.

Dr. Domingo was invited to sit on the editorial board of three international journals, was granted membership to international and regional professional societies on liver diseases, and was appointed adviser in the World Health Organization.

Homeward Bound

His career could therefore have been just as stellar abroad.  Dr. Domingo admits to the blandishments flashed before him. He recalls how in 1964, a dean of a new medical school in  New Mexico told him that a fulltime faculty position awaited him in the college of medicine. “But I said, no, I’m going back.  Then he told me, ‘All right, Ernie. I think you are making a good decision.’ ” A lucrative medical practice was never what motivated him.  It was the poor who were never far from his thoughts.

Nevertheless, Dr. Domingo’s legacy will be one that extends beyond local medical studies. He is credited for working to save as many lives as can fit in his country’s health safety net. In 2008, he and colleagues formed the Universal Health Care Study Group, which cobbled together a blueprint for universal health care. The Group’s blueprint became the basis of the Department of Health’s Universal Health Care Program dubbed “Kalusugang Pangkalahatan”.

2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ernesto Domingo

These advocacies are not always applauded. In countríes where people can afford to quibble over the principles underpinning their medical care, there are complaints about a complex and government-financed health care system manipulated by politically powerful interest groups. Neonatal hepatitis B immunization is not universally lauded either. The World Health Organization only recommends infant vaccination for Hepatitis B in areas where carrier prevalence is 2 percent or greater.  Some studies have pointed to a correlation between vaccinations and autism.

What steered Dr. Domingo’s work clear of the hornet’s nest is it’s situs—the Philippines.  In developing countríes of Asia, many cannot afford comprehensive health insurance or even the basic medical care they need. Health care in countries with a high poverty incidence is an economic good that needs to be distributed.  Otherwise, the populace falls back on selected random free clinics.

Asian Laureate

The Ramón Magsaysay Awardee receives a certificate, a medallion, and a cash prize of US$50,000 at the awarding ceremony in August of each year.  The award itself is always last in the list of driving forces that push one to the achievement for which he is recognized. The self just does not come into play.  The humanitarian journey marks one’s sharing of vision on what the human community can be.

The citation reads “In electing Ernesto Domingo to receive the 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his exemplary embrace of the social mission of his medical science and profession, his steadfast leadership in pursuing “health for all” as a shared moral responsibility of all sectors, and his groundbreaking and successful advocacy for neonatal hepatitis vaccination, thereby saving millions of lives in the Philippines.”

2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Ernesto Domingo

Dr. Domingo forges on. He chairs the Department of Health’s Health Research Hub. Like one who will always be a missionary, Dr. Ernesto Domingo has reverted to active medical practice. He holds clinic in two of Manila’s best tertiary hospitals.  The Filipino, Juan dela Cruz, is his valued patient.  He treats with skill, a clinical eye, guided by the first, the latest, the best of shining equipment—heart.