Following an undergraduate medical degree (Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka), Professor Sumathipala obtained a Diploma In Family Medicine and a Doctorate in Family Medicine (Post Graduate Institute of Medicine (University of Colombo, Sri Lanka). He migrated to the UK in 1992 and was re-trained as a psychiatrist at the Maudesley and Bethlem Royal Hospitals and obtained the MRCPsych and completed the specialist training as a Liaison psychiatrist.
He was a Research Associate (Section of Epidemiology) at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, London from 1999 to 2004 and completed a PhD from University of London in 2004. He also worked as a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College from 2008 to 2009.
In 1997 he founded the Institute for Research and Development in Sri Lanka (IRD - www.ird.lk). He moved to Sri Lanka to serve as the Director of the IRD while remaining as a Hon Senior Lecturer, IoP, Kings College, London from 2009 to 2014. Following the Tsunami he also worked as the coordinator (Psychosocial Affairs), Centre for National Operations on Tsunami in Sri Lanka.
He was awarded the HB Williams Traveling Professorship of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists in 2007. He was elected as an honorary Fellow of the Sri Lankan College of General Practitioners in 2008. He was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal College of Psychiatrist, UK in 2018.
The Institute for Research and Development he founded in Sri Lanka received a merit award for ‘excellence in multidisciplinary international collaborations’ and Professor Sumathipala received ‘outstanding leadership, from National Science Foundation in 2018.
Professor Sumathipala is also an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Emeritus Professor of Global Mental Health, Kings College London, Hon. Director, Institute for Research and Development, Sri Lanka and a Visiting Professor in Psychiatry and Biomedical Research at the Faculty of Medicine, Kotelawala Defence University, Sri Lanka.
Research and scholarship
Professor Sumathipala started the research career with an interest in medically unexplained symptoms (MUS) when he was a GP in Sri Lanka. His first research project which formed the basis of his Doctorate in Medicine: an epidemiological study of MUS. His work extended from observational epidemiology to intervention studies. He has conducted two clinical trials of CBT for the treatment of MUS in Sri Lanka.
His interests started with MUS grounded through real life experience when he was working in primary care in Sri Lanka and extended from observational epidemiology to intervention studies. I have conducted two clinical trials of CBT for the treatment of MUS in Sri Lanka. These were identified in the Lancet Series on Global Mental Health (2007) as among a handful of such complex intervention trials of mental disorders from low and middle income countries. His first intervention study formed the basis of his PhD, the second study built on the first to investigate the efficacy of CBT for MUS delivered by primary care doctors. This work is now replicated in Vietnam in collaboration with colleagues from Australia. This CBT intervention was used as a model for a subsequent RCT using CBT as an outreach approach for patients with suicidal ideations in Sri Lanka by a PhD student at King’s College London, whom he co-supervised.
The originality of the CBT intervention developed is that it is an intervention simple enough to be implemented by non-mental health professionals, but which conforms to CBT principles. The approach is efficient as it reduces the duration and frequency of sessions required 3-6 sessions of 30 minutes duration. The treatment package was designed by using metaphor as an effective clinical tool to get the principles of CBT across to patients and clinicians more easily. To develop an appealing and effective metaphor, he first undertook extensive qualitative research on patients’ explanatory models.
His work particularly on MUS has had an influence policy and practice in the field. MUS are an important public health issue following disasters. Therefore after the tsunami, the WHO sponsored training of a critical mass of doctors (400). A manual and a poster were developed (www.ird.lk). The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC - headed by the WHO) guidelines on mental health and psycho social support in emergency settings, has incorporated this work and have recommended it as an important front line post-disaster intervention. It is also incorporated in WHO mhGAP Intervention Guide for mental, neurological and substance use disorders in non-specialized health settings. After the earthquake in Pakistan and Sichuan province in China, I trained 40 psychiatrists using these resources.
He also founded the Sri Lankan Twin Registry (1997), which is a unique resource; one of the few large scale functioning population based registries for twin and genetic research in a low- and middle-income country (LMIC). It comprises of a volunteer cohort of 14,120 twins and a population-based cohort of 19,040 twins. Several studies have been conducted using this registry, which have explored the prevalence and heritability of a range of psychiatric disorders including depression, somatisation, PTSD, alcohol abuse.
Current work is extending into the interface between mental and physical health to new horizons, extending collaborations with the wider global twin research community. A follow-up study of the same cohort was completed, looking at the prevalence and interrelationship of a number of key cardiovascular and metabolic risk markers; diabetes, heart disease, and depression.
He has also built a successful programme of research into ethical aspects of research in Sri Lanka, mainly funded by the Wellcome Trust. This work includes training and capacity building to improve research ethics and the governance of research in Sri Lanka and South Asia. This was extended to disaster related research and ethics. I have given leadership to establish the Working Group on Disaster Research and Ethics (WGDRE) in South Asia publishing ethical guidelines for disaster related research. This group has now extended to include colleagues from Australia, Brazil, Israel, Japan, China, US and EU countries.
His work has brought him an international reputation. This is reflected through the travelling professorship I was awarded by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) in 2007 and Honorary Fellowship awarded by the Sri Lankan College of General Practitioners in 2008. I have also been an invited speaker at major international conferences including the invitation by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization WHO, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in (Beijing 2006), World Psychiatric Association & WONCA Thematic Conference (Grenada 2008), and at the 11th International congress on behavioural medicine, Washington DC (2010) and key note speech at RANZAP annual conference in New Zealand (2007).
He has served as a member of the WHO Working Group on Somatic Distress and Dissociative Disorders, Revision of ICD-10 (2011) and WHO Guidelines Development Group (GDG) for problems and disorders specifically related to stress (SPE-STRESS) – (2011)
However, being a researcher from a developing country, where the infrastructure for research is not well established, demanded I think beyond his personal career. He considers his greatest contribution throughout his academic and research career is the establishment of Institute for Research & Development (IRD) in Sri Lanka (www.ird.lk) and the Sri Lankan Twin Registry. Working with senior colleagues at the IoP/KCL and Sri Lanka, the resource has been extended to establish a state-of-the-art genetic laboratory and a bio-bank.
He also realised that there was a gap in the ethical framework, which is essential for high quality research. Extension of this work earned him an additional international reputation in bioethics that resulted in the UNECSO validating him as an expert in bioethics.
He founded and continued to provide the strategic leadership to the IRD which is now a sustainable research organization independent of government, industry and universities. The IRD has been a vehicle for developing series of large-scale local and international research projects. IRD was commissioned by the Ministry of Health Sri Lank, to carry out the first ever island wide mental health survey (2007) and also the survey on left behind families by spouse migration (2011) which contributed to the national migration policy. In 2007, the WHO Colombo office commissioned the IRD to develop and evaluate a training programme for primary care doctors in Eastern province of Sri Lanka on identification, treatment and referral of epilepsy, psychosis, severe depression, MUC and heavy alcohol use.
This infrastructure now complements his efforts by promoting capacity building through a cadre of high-calibre junior academics.
I have extensive experience in the field of teaching. I have lectured and taught seminars on a range of topics related to mental health at post-graduate level, and in international courses in research methods including qualitative methods, and ethics.
I consider my greatest contribution throughout my academic and research career is the establishment of Institute for Research & Development (IRD) in Sri Lanka (www.ird.lk) and the Sri Lankan Twin Registry which is a unique resource; one of the few large scale functioning population based registries for twin and genetic research in a low- and middle-income country (LMIC). I also have an international reputation in bioethics.