Dr Thandi Mgwebi


Like many sectors, higher education must adapt to the continuously changing environment in order to remain relevant, and to contribute effectively to socio-economic advancement. While some universities are quick to adopt new approaches and technologies, most public universities are slow to make changes to their teaching, learning and research practices.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented higher education with both challenges and opportunities. For instance, there has been a rapid increase in the use of e-learning and communication channels in the sector, using platforms like Zoom.  Academics have had to re-equip themselves to use these platforms effectively.

In the public health sector, the pandemic has highlighted the need to improve public health systems continuously, and to try new ways of doing things, such as using holistic approaches when training medical practitioners – focusing not lonely on health, but also on socio-economic factors and the broader environment.

On the research side, the pandemic has amplified the need for systems approaches that bring together different experts, subjects and sectors when addressing global challenges.

Innovative training for medical practitioners and specialists

Despite the growing demand for medical practitioners, the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 has disrupted in-hospital medical training.  There are social distancing rules, and restrictions on hospital access for medical students. Trainee doctors and specialists are being redeployed to help manage COVID-19 patients.

With less than one doctor per 1 000 population in 2016, compared with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average of 3,4, more doctors are urgently required.  South Africa needs at least an additional 4 294 medical practitioners and 7 471 medical specialists. Compounding this challenge is the inequitable distribution of doctors between the public and private sectors; the majority of doctors work in the private sector, which serves only a small proportion of the population.  As in many other countries, the rural areas in South Africa are historically under-served.

In addition to these challenges, until last year only nine of South Africa's 26 public universities offered medical degrees. In December 2020, Nelson Mandela University (NMU) became the 10th institution to offer the MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) qualification. With the growing demand for medical practitioners, the new medical school is a beacon of hope in the Eastern Cape.

It's not just medicine

Modern medicine has seen rapid advancements in the past century. These advancements require the continuous development of innovative training approaches in order to equip practitioners with skills relevant to modern-day and future health challenges.

The NMU Medical School is using innovative, transformative, distributive teaching models, with an emphasis on comprehensive primary health care, and makes use of technology for effective education in the health professions.

In addition, NMU has an inter-professional programme that will see students come together to study across health science disciplines. This transformative model will see doctors work and study alongside nurses, radiographers, psychologists, environmental health practitioners, pharmacists, emergency medical care students and the like, to offer holistic and integrated health care.

The training approach incorporates a community-based approach to allow for a better understanding of related challenges in society, and an improved contribution to urban renewal and development.

NMU's medical students will receive "decentralised" training, dividing their time between lectures – many of which may be online – and working in primary healthcare clinics.

The programme will produce family doctors, appropriately trained for the medical and health needs of both South Africa and Africa, with comprehensive skills and a greater capacity to serve diverse communities. By 2030, the university aims to train 200 new doctors each year.

Nelson Mandela University is optimistic that this will help to address the Eastern Cape's scarcity of doctors.  

Dr Thandi Mgwebi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University.