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Medical students should have practical exposure to rural health while they are still studying to encourage them to work in rural hospitals.
Gavin MacGregor, director of the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, says students need to be made more aware of rural health as a viable career option.
The Umthombo Youth Development Foundation trains and supports rural youth to become qualified healthcare professionals to address the human resource shortages in rural hospitals. On completion of their training, these young healthcare professionals work at rural hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal in return for the opportunity they had to obtain a health science qualification.
MacGregor says information is not enough to inspire graduates to work in rural health.
“They get a lot of information about going into private practice and specialising. We have to do more than invite them.”
Umthombo’s students work in rural hospitals for at least five weeks a year during their holidays which MacGregor says is a valuable tool to expose students to rural healthcare. Students work at the same hospital every year.
Working in a rural hospital makes students aware of the severe staff shortages in these areas.
The health department’s human resources in health (HRH) strategy for the health sector: 2012/13-2016/17 acknowledges that there is a maldistribution of health professionals between rural and urban areas. Almost half (43,6%) of South Africa’s population live in rural areas, but they are served by only 12% of the country’s doctors and 19% of nurses. Of the 1 200 medical students graduating in the country annually, only about 35 end up working in rural areas as most work in the private sector, urban areas, or move overseas.
Working in rural health is challenging, but at the same time very rewarding, says MacGregor.
There is a real sense of community in rural areas which makes doctors feel valued and appreciated.
“Doctors can really apply their minds, gain experience and make a difference.”
Admitting students from rural areas does not guarantee they will work in rural areas. Students need to be made aware of the fact that they are expected to go back and work in rural health after they finish their studies, says MacGregor. Students who receive bursaries from provincial departments of health should be required to work in rural areas and the department should also act against students that fail to honour their obligation, he says.
Students must also receive the appropriate training to ensure they are adequately prepared to work in a rural hospital, says MacGregor.
According to the health department’s HRH strategy it plans to implement a rural health strategy to attract and retain health professionals in the rural areas. The strategy would include interventions to attract community service professionals, and to extend the health science education and training platform to rural areas. Financial and professional incentives for professionals working in rural areas would also form part of the strategy.