Medical field will be hit hard if student protests continue

Private security at UCT this week.

As the stand-off between protesting UCT students and university management continued this week, medical institutions in the southern suburbs were bracing for a “significant” fall-out in the event of medical students not being able to graduate this year.

Representatives of the area’s hospitals and other medical centres have warned that medical interns will not be placed, and much-needed training lost as a result of students not graduating.

Should a solution not be found, the institutions will be compelled to draw up contingency plans that would have to be hurriedly prepared, as medical graduates are expected to begin their internships on January 1 next year.

The medical professionals’ views echo those of the Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPSCA) and South African Pharmacy Council (SAPC).

Dr Motsoaledi has already indicated there would be 2 000 fewer junior doctors entering the health sector if final-year students do not graduate, while on Tuesday October 11, the SAPC’s Amos Masango said there would be a “disastrous” impact on the ability of the health sector to provide access to quality pharmaceutical services. “We are already short of professionals and a delay in completion of the class of 2016 would exacerbate the issue further,” he said.

UCT students returned to their studies on Monday October 17, but Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price warned the university was reaching the “point of no return”.

Groote Schuur Hospital spokesperson Alaric Jacobs was under no illusions about the gravity of the situation at hand, pointing out that most of the hospital’s interns were sourced from UCT. “We have 80 interns in total. Every year we get 40 new interns and they stay for the two years,” he said. “We work very closely with UCT. Today (Monday) the students went back and they are on track to finish this year. But if things will change in the next week or two we will need to meet with them and come up with contingency plans.”

Mark van der Heever, deputy communications director for the Western Cape health department, said if the academic year was terminated, there would be significant implications for the public health sector, which included the unavailability of medical interns as from January 2017 1, as the knock-on effect of final-year students not qualifying would be felt nationally.

“There will also be a potential full year loss of training as the new intake for first years will, in all likelihood, not be possible. This will not only be applicable to doctors but also to other health professionals,” he said.

Mr Van der Heever said his statement covered all public health facilities in the Western Cape, adding contingency plans would include the contracting of locums to assist “as and when necessary”.

Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital would also be heavily affected were students not able to graduate.

Spokesperson Angelique Jordaan said the hospital accommodated a total of 36 community service graduates every year.

The allocation breakdown was 13 graduates for nursing, 14 in the general medical sector, and nine graduates for allied health, which includes physiotherapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, radiographers and speech therapists.

At Victoria Hospital in Wynberg, spokesperson Monique Johnstone said there were currently 24 interns. Twelve interns are taken in by the hospital annually.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola painted a bleak and candid picture of what students not graduating would mean for not only the city, but the nation as a whole.

“Every year in January, thousands of healthcare professionals such as newly graduated doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, audiologists and speech-language pathologists enter the public health system to complete their internship and community service. Interns are a crucial resource for the national healthcare system due to the chronic shortage of health professionals. There are areas in South Africa that rely heavily on these interns to fill the gap in the healthcare system,” he said.

“Of the 1500 medical doctors due to enter the public health system as interns throughout South Africa in 2017, 158 come from UCT. In total we hope to graduate 350 health professionals . If we are not able to graduate our final years, there will be a knock-on effect that will be detrimental to the community healthcare system. The graduates will lose their placements and will be unable enter the system as interns.”

He said the health faculty had “severe capacity constraints” in terms of its teaching and laboratory space.

“If UCT is unable to graduate the 350 students from the current year, they will be unable to bring in a new cohort of first-year students in 2017. This may result in a potential backlog of two years for healthcare services provided by UCT.”

HPSCA spokesperson Daphney Chuma said the “unstable” environment at tertiary institutions could have an impact on the quality of future healthcare practitioners and on the accreditation status of training institutions, as the accreditation was based on a number of criteria including academic exposure, assessments, infrastructure, safety and equipment of such institutions.

“Council is concerned about the state of unrest that is currently taking place at higher education institutions impacting severely on the training of future health professionals. Furthermore, the HPCSA guides and regulates the health professions in the country in aspects pertaining to registration, education and training,” she said.

“Currently, South Africa has limited resources in terms of health professionals practising in the country. The continuation of such unstable academic environment will affect the registration of final-year students due to complete their studies and have to register with the council for the purpose of practising their professions at the end of 2016.”