Taking on SA’s tough medical challenges

There is a renaissance happening at UCT’s Department of Medicine, and Professor Bongani Mayosi is the spearhead. He and his team are transforming the department to meet the unique clinical medicine needs of the country.

As head of the Department of Medicine at UCT and with enough awards to plaster the Old Main Building at Groote Schuur Hospital — the latest being the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest order in the land — Mayosi is on a mission. And he has been since he took the chair in 2006.

“When I took the chair it was clear to me that we needed to engage more with society — to become a new department, for a new South Africa. We needed to transform,” he says. This transformation has less to do with BEE than it does with improving the quality of life for South Africans.

Coming from Ngqamakwe, a rural village in the Transkei, where his father practised as a district surgeon, Mayosi has many years of experience and a firm grasp on the challenges facing clinical medicine in South Africa. “This is a transformation process to deal with pressing issues,” Mayosi says.

The challenges include diseases, which are at unacceptable levels; and skills, of which there is a major shortage. Ideas, in the form of published work (the ‘measuring stick’ of intellectual capital) also need to be boosted. Prior to 2006, research in the department had been on a downward trend.

“Transformation in terms of a demographic imperative is necessary but not sufficient. Transformational success needs to be judged against our ability to improve people’s quality of life,” he says.

Traditionally the UCT Department of Medicine has offered clinical services that are unique in Africa, with a range of highly specialised units such as the stroke unit, and services such as transplant medicine and cardiac electrophysiology. It is also the only department to provide full training in all sub-specialities of medicine.

Since 2005, the department has grown to include 149 fulltime academic staff, a 37% increase. There has been a 46% increase in black staff and a 28% increase in women. They are also working with government and NGOs to combat the high levels of chronic non-communicable diseases.

To counter skills shortages in the country, the department has created the Clinical Scholars programme, or a ‘pipeline of professors’, to improve training; and it recognises the importance of initiating interest in medicine as a career at more junior stages of education.

In terms of research, increased support from outside institutions has led to the creation of specialised research units. “This is a pioneering department that competes globally, an inventive department charging ahead in transforming the lived experience of our people by transforming ourselves first.”

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