86-year-old Dr Zeenat Hussain is the founder of The Medical Laboratories in Pakistan. She is still as actively involved in the day-to-day running of its operations as she was when she opened her first laboratory back in 1963. Known for introducing the latest innovations and technologies in her laboratory, Dr Hussain is a true pioneer in the diagnostics industry in Pakistan. In this exclusive interview with Roche Diagram magazine, Dr Hussain talks about how she built her laboratory from the ground up as well as her community initiatives with the Zeenat Foundation.
The case for amplifying women’s voices in the world of science and diagnostics grows stronger as diversity drives discovery and advancement. Many female scientists, researchers, and academics have brought pioneering approaches to complex disease areas such as preeclampsia, breast and cervical cancer, and cardiovascular disease, with a sense of urgency as well as a depth of personal understanding. Often their approach contributes a point of view on the nuanced needs and unique biological differences of the female population – an area that is often overlooked.
This edition of Diagram magazine looks at female leaders in diagnostics who are spearheading many of our industry’s breakthrough innovations, research and education initiatives. We take a closer look at the women who are changing the face of diagnostics in bold and exciting ways.
Dr Zeenat Hussain is not someone who swims with the tide. She started her laboratory nearly 55 years ago, making it the first and only private laboratory in Lahore, Pakistan at the time. But it didn’t start out this way.
At a time when women didn’t have as much freedom as they do today, Dr Hussain left Pakistan in 1954 in her mid-20’s for a one-year internship at the University of Iowa Hospital in the United States. “There were just so many ways you could immerse yourself in this specialty. It wasn’t just lectures. There were other learning opportunities such as attending conferences and workshops – it was so interesting,” says Dr Hussain, explaining how her career in pathology began.
She returned to Pakistan and took up a job in King Edward Medical College’s pathology department. “In those days, women weren’t allowed to become assistant professors and I felt this would restrict my career. So I left King Edward Medical College and joined Fatima Jinnah Medical College (now called Fatima Jinnah Medical University).”
From there, she took off once again, this time to the United Kingdom. She lived in England for eight years and earned a Masters in Microbiology. While there, she purchased some laboratory equipment and then some more. “And before you know it, I had photometers and other equipment which I brought back with me to Pakistan and decided to start my own small laboratory,” she says.
A Tough Beginning
During the laboratory’s early days, Dr Hussain’s work day would start at 10 in the morning and go well past midnight.
Today things are different. “Back then, it was difficult to get qualified staff. In the early days, there weren’t institutions in Pakistan which taught medical technology courses. But now there are many courses which technologists can attend. As a result, there’s a growing talent pool. So now I come in later at around 2pm and leave at about 11pm.”
From learning how to operate every instrument to conducting quality checks, Dr Hussain was involved in all the aspects of her laboratory. To this day, even as her laboratory processes more than 1,200 samples per day, Dr Hussain signs off on every single report herself.
“I didn’t know whether the laboratory would be successful, so I kept my job with Fatima Jinnah Medical College to have a steady income source, while running my laboratory in parallel,” Dr Hussain recalls.
The support of her family, especially her husband, kept her going. “We’ve been married for over 60 years and I don’t think I could have achieved all that I set out to, without his support.”
Changing Laboratory Environment
“It was definitely tough in the beginning. Each week I did my work – microscopy and cultures and certain basic chemistry because in those days you must remember there were no kits, like there are now. So one had to make one’s own solutions to carry out chemical tests.”
As her laboratory built up its reputation and presence, more and more samples started coming in. It was at this point that Dr Hussain realised that she would need assistance in processing these samples. She learned of Boehringer Mannheim’s auto analysers, and it was a turning point for her laboratory. The automated analysers enhanced the laboratory’s quality control, quality assurance and proficiency testing.
In the business of laboratory medicine, Dr Hussain believes that at the end of the day, people only want to know that their results are accurate. To that end, she is an advocate of advancements and innovation that will enhance the quality and accuracy of the laboratory’s results.
Today, nearly half a century later, Dr Hussain’s ISO certified The Medical Laboratories has more than 100 collection points and employs around 100 staff members. In fact, some of the employees are long-timers who have been with her since the establishment of the laboratory. “One employee has been with me for 50 years and he is still working with me,” she told Diagram magazine.
Her biggest achievement? “Without a doubt, it’s my laboratory. Since the beginning I knew I wanted to be independent and that was the path I chose. But looking back, maybe the path chose me.”
Desire to give back
Her boundless energy intact, Dr Hussain can easily put people half her age to shame. “My days go by swiftly and there’s still so much to do.”
One such passion project is the Zeenat Foundation which she set up over 30 years ago. It comprises a group of doctors who go into villages to provide healthcare to those in need.
The team has been involved in examining and diagnosing diabetics as well as patients with hepatitis B and hepatitis C. In some instances, the Foundation has also provided free treatment and medication. Beyond healthcare, the Zeenat Foundation has also supported students facing financial difficulties with scholarships.
When asked about her retirement, Dr Hussain simply said, “There’s no time to think about that.”
It’s hard to imagine having the same passion and commitment after all these years. But then Dr Hussain is just the person to prove everyone wrong.