Health training where it's needed most

Dr Justice Mautjana of the Wits Initiative for Rural Health Education with a patient

Dr Justice Mautjana of the Wits Initiative for Rural Health Education with a patient

In an effort to fill vital health professional positions in rural hospitals, the Wits Centre for Rural Health set up a bursary scheme targeting youth from the areas with the biggest needs.

Called the Wits Initiative for Rural Health Education, the scheme currently operates from the North West province, which has the lowest doctor-patient ratio in the country.

The initiative works closely with the local department of health to recruit disadvantaged rural students and support them in becoming health professionals, such as doctors, dentists or pharmacists.

The support is not only financial, but includes ongoing mentorship and encouragement.

“The key thing is to choose people from an area they are going to go back to,” said department head Professor Ian Couper. “People from the rural areas are more likely to go back to that area. There’s no guarantee, of course, but there’s a much greater chance.

Couper said international evidence indicates that where a young person trains has bearing on where they end up working.

“Our students are required to spend their holidays working at hospitals in their home district,” he said. “Not only does this professional work experience provide them with skills over their peers, but it also establishes a relationship with the hospital that builds up over their studies.”

The initiative is designed to be easily replicable and fosters institutional co-operation between the three participating universities: the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) in Limpopo, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria.

Prospective candidates are identified through local schools. Annually three students are chosen from each of the province’s four districts, based on the hospitals’ human resource needs, financial needs of the students and their willingness to serve the health needs of their district in the future. A contract is signed related to the number of years of funding received.

“We are now seeing that some of the people coming have been inspired to apply after hearing stories from the current group of students or graduates,” said Couper.