US funding to train 140 000 African healthcare workers

A new programme, funded largely by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), will provide $130-million in grants to African institutions, with the aim of strengthening medical education and research training.

Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), said the goals of the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (Mepi) are ambitious. “The intention here is, over five years, to train no less than 140 000 healthcare workers and to provide a real platform for a wide variety of research activities going forward. This is not something that has been attempted before,” he said.

In addition to supporting doctors, nurses and community healthcare workers, the programme will help train individuals who can be successful in applying for grant support to carry out research.

Collins said that for too many years, research in Africa has been unsupported and that often it has been carried out by foreign institutions. The future of healthcare in Africa would be brightest if the capacity for research on the continent is strengthened, he added.

SA medical schools to benefit
Two South African institutions — the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Stellenbosch University — are among the dozen African universities involved in the programme and will receive a portion of the funding through a series of grants. US officials and representatives from the medicals schools are meeting in Johannesburg this week to build networks and finds ways to collaborate.

Dr Umesh Lalloo, dean of the faculty of medicine at UKZN said that, based on the huge shortage of health workers in the country, the Mepi grant couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. “It empowers us as an institution to train the next cadre of healthcare academic leaders and ensure that these come from the communities of the people who we wish to serve,” he said.

Lalloo said the programme would be useful in light of Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi’s drive to increase the intake of students at medial schools. “They plan to expand the size of our academic health complex so that we would hopefully be able to double the intake of doctors,” he said.

“It’s easy to say we can admit double the number of medical students but if you do not provide the appropriate faculty support, you would undermine your training and create frustrated graduates.” The fuding would provide a platform to train clinical scientists and academics who could support that greater numbers of students.

Plugging the brain drain
Delegates at the Mepi meeting discussed the implications of the brain drain on healthcare in Africa. According to the NHI, one-fifth of the physicians trained in Africa migrate to high-income countries within five years of completing their training.

Eric Goosby, the United States Global Aids Coordinator, said the issue was a complex one but he believed that when people are given a living wage and provided with incentives, such as research opportunities, many would choose to stay at home, near their extended families.

Dr Jean Nachega, from the department of medicine at the University of Stellenbosch, agreed, saying there are ways to influence highly trained professionals to stay in the country. “Providing a supporting environment for clinical work and research, supporting [doctors] with some small-scale research support would be the way to go,” he said.

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