Bridging the public healthcare gap

Ray Maota

Doctors who need valuable surgical
experience can get it through Africa
Health Placement.
(Image: AHP)

• Retha Grobbelaar
AHP: Media and Public Relations
+ 27 11 328 1316

Africa Health Placements (AHP) is a non-profit organisation determined to support and enhance healthcare systems in South Africa by finding, placing and retaining healthcare workers in rural and underserved areas.

The organisation came about in 2005 to counter the brain drain that South Africa in particular was experiencing in the public health sector. A large number of medical professionals were pursuing private sector opportunities in some of the world’s more lucrative industries.

Over 2 000 healthcare workers have been placed so far in predominantly rural areas, with almost half of these being local professionals.

AHP gets funding from the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief; The Atlantic Philanthropies; and leading mining companies Anglo American and De Beers, as well as Discovery Health; West Pharmaceuticals and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

“We work in the public sector and are linked to the national department of health as well as its different provincial departments,” said Retha Grobbelaar, media and public relations officer of AHP.

“This is in order to get an idea of where there are shortages of health practitioners and how we can help.”

Grobelaar said that they tend to encourage the professionals they meet by reminding them of the reasons they entered into the profession. Their message is one of making a difference: the practitioners get the opportunity to expand on their medical experience and the impact of adjusting to a difference lifestyle means growth for them spiritually and for their careers.

“We also try to make their transition smoother by doing administrative work for them like finding them accommodation, schools for those who have children and suitable peers with whom they can relax in their spare time if they need some.”

According to AHP, as many as 50% of graduating health professionals in South Africa are likely to emigrate to foreign shores at some point in their career. To add to the woes of the public sector, 75% of those who remain in the country opt for private practice.

“Africa’s greatest obstacle in the public (and particularly rural) healthcare environment is the lack of qualified professionals,” said Grobelaar.

“Our aim is to fill the gaps, and ultimately to help people view the public health sector in a new light – as a truly viable and exciting career option.”

Health practitioners who are recruited and placed within the AHP programme receive the standard government salaries for their work.

Recruitment and placing

The programme offers a variety of contracts for professionals, ranging from permanent to part-time and voluntary placements.

The processes are governed within the standards set by regulatory bodies such as the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and the Foreign Workforce Management Programme.

According to AHP, citizens from economically developed countries not on the G77 list – a coalition of 132 nations, all UN members, of which 77 are founding members of the group – may be called upon to write a proficiency examination if they would like to work in South Africa, depending on the country in which the qualification was issued.

On the other hand, AHP has a policy of not recruiting candidates from G77 countries if those countries have a similarly desperate need for qualified professionals. The exception here is for those who would operate under a refugee status. The policy is in line with standards of the HPCSA.

For local doctors applying for placement, permanent positions are available at levels one to three in public hospitals as well as in the NGO sector. Volunteer and temporary placements are also available.

Requirements for foreign health practitioners applying can be found here.

The great stories from doctors already placed

Dr Andrei Kirpichnikov from the Ukraine came to South Africa in 2007 seeking to further his surgical experience.

After spending a year at the Tugela Ferry Hospital in rural KwaZulu-Natal, about three hours from Durban, he found another post at the East London Hospital Complex in the Eastern Cape.

“I am definitely a better doctor now. I came to be trained and to do surgical procedures and I ended up staying,” said Kirpichnikov.

Asked to give advice for doctors seeking experience in their field, Kirpichnikov described the experience as a unique opportunity.

“There are wonderful hospitals, and if you are looking for experience, or if you want to be supervised, you will find it here. If you want to work independently in a rural setting, you will also find that.”

Doctors Jenness Cameron from the UK and Anne Brouha from the US came to South Africa in August 2011. They hope to leave a successful ARV programme behind in the rural clinics surrounding the Rietvlei Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal when they leave South Africa at the end of June 2012.

The two have been establishing ARV services in Rietvlei by training two nurses at each of its 13 clinics on how to administer ARV treatment.

Cameron said: “HIV rates in rural KZN are very high. We’ve put hundreds on treatment and there are always more who desperately need it.”

She also found the experience rewarding, especially the opportunity to train the local nurses.

“You feel like you are leaving something behind that will carry on. You are not just seeing patients. It’s been an amazing experience and I love working with the people,” said Cameron.