Three academics at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) were recipients of the 2019 Discovery Foundation Awards.
These grants, given to clinicians providing healthcare services to rural and underserved communities, were awarded to Dr Sean Chetty from the Department of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care (who received the Massachusetts General Hospital Fellowship Award), Prof Louis Jenkins from the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Care (who received the Rural Institutional Award) and Dr Bradley Wentzel from the Ukwanda Centre for Rural Health (who received the Rural Distinguished Visitor Awards).
Dr Sean Chetty
In mid-June, Dr Sean Chetty from the Department of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care heads off to spend a year at Harvard University’s Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), where he will have the opportunity to work with world leaders in the field of translational pain and bring those skills back to South Africa.
An elated Chetty said in an interview the trip to Harvard will not only be a great learning opportunity but a big adventure for his family.
“The hospital is a teaching hospital, and I will go there specifically to work in the translational pain research unit. I will, essentially, be learning and training in the hospital. The idea behind this scholarship is to develop the next generation of South African academics,” Chetty said.
“We most definitely need these skills in the area of pain treatment in South Africa. It is a very new sub speciality here.
Chetty said he was both shocked and excited to hear he had received the award. “It was such a surprise and an honour. Now that the reality has settled in, my wife and two kids, aged ten and eight, are so excited about going.
“It’s a great career opportunity and the cherry on top is my children will experience life in the United States. I have no intention of leaving SA, so this will allow them to experience a different culture for a year.
On his goals, Chetty said: “My goal is to stay in academia. My mid-term goal is to start a pain research unit at SU and to get a pain training programme going. In the long term, I’d like to progress through the ranks of academia at the university.”
Explaining the meaning of translational pain, he said: “Pain itself is a misunderstood area. Many people think it’s a symptom of something but especially with chronic pain, it’s a disease entity on its own. Because of this misunderstanding, not enough research goes into it. Internationally it is one of the biggest research areas, but in SA it is still in its infancy.
“Translational pain looks at how we can link lab-based research to clinical work and it’s the bridge between the two. It deals with how to convert what we learn in labs to make it applicable to patient care. In SA, we have scatterings of clinical research being done but not much progress is being made in linking the two. There’s a huge opportunity for our faculty to develop this area and be the bridge.”
Chetty said he looks forward to gaining laboratory experience on his trip to the US – “and to working with the masterful minds at Massachusetts General, so that I bring back skills to develop our own centre of excellence at Stellenbosch.”
Professor Louis Jenkins
Prof Louis Jenkins from the Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care received the Rural Institutional Award. Jenkins who is also head of Family and Emergency Medicine at the George Hospital, said the award of R850 000 over two years will be used to fund a leadership development programme for people working in the health sector in the Garden Route and Central Karoo districts.
“We want to establish a model aimed at helping people develop resilience to ‘stick it out’ in the rural areas, become transformative leaders, and be empowered to tackle the system-wide issues in health, so that we retain them in rural areas.”
Jenkins, who has been at George Hospital for 19 years, said: “We noticed that the rural areas we cover are not retaining doctors, nurses and allied health workers. They come for the experience and then they move back to the cities where there are more opportunities.”
The programme will involve bringing a group of 15 people working in the health sector in the Garden Route and Central Karoo districts together for a two-day weekend workshop. Jenkins said he hopes to organize five workshops a year, with the focus on a “values-driven” approach.
“We will invite doctors, nurses and allied health workers from intern level to senior management level to bring their real workplace problems to the workshops in a safe space of trust. These problems could range from overtime issues or staff absenteeism or breakdowns in trust between nurses and management. Often people think they are the only ones battling with certain issues. In the workshops, we will unpack these and work together towards solutions. The goal is to understand collaborative leadership, respectful communication and team-based problem solving – with a view to developing resilience and retention of staff. We recently did a pilot workshop in Riversdal which worked well.”
Jenkins said he would work closely with Dr Zilla North, the medical manager at George Hospital and Prof Arnold Smit from the Stellenbosch Business School in developing the model.
“We will look at what values drive people, what ethical principles are at stake, and how we translate these into excellent patient care.
Jenkins said he was very thankful and excited to receive the award. “We hope to develop leadership among the young people at the coalface of health work in rural areas and to take the model for the development of collaborative leaders in rural areas to other districts around South Africa.
“During my years at George Hospital, we realized many of our staff are skilled technically, they can do medical procedures and good administrative work, but they battle with basic leadership issues like understanding systems and ‘owning’ processes. For instance, they might not understand the transport and communication logistics when a patient is referred from a small hospital to a large hospital. Instead of having personal issues with the doctors on the other side or with the paramedics, we need to train our staff to understand health systems, to be aware how values influence practice, to be visionary leaders and to care for colleagues and communities.
“We want to evoke values around caring, commitment, accountability, integrity, respect and responsiveness to communities in health workers.”
Dr Bradley Wentzel
Dr Bradley Wentzel received the Rural Distinguished Visitor Award from the Discovery Foundation. He works as a paediatrician and student coordinator for the LIM programme at the Harry Surtie Hospital in Upington, and said the monetary award will be used to employ an internal medicine specialist to attend to patients at the hospital in Upington.
“I am ecstatic about the award. It is a great step in the right direction. We have many problems in the health system in the Northern Cape, so this will really help. Stellenbosch University already assists us by sending students to work at the hospital, which is a great help to us, and they also encouraged us to apply for this award. We’ll now have a much-needed consultant in internal medicine.
“We always hope that when the students qualify, they will return to work in the Northern Cape. It is not the first choice for most people to live. It is difficult to get people to come and work here. We currently lack specialists in certain disciplines, like ophthalmology, orthopaedics and internal medicine so this award will be used to get more specialist care for our patients. The grant will be paid to the university, which will send a specialist, Dr Rust Theron, to Upington every few months to spend a few days here, seeing patients in the outpatient department, doing ward rounds and training doctors and students. This will be very helpful to us.
“Challenges in internal medicine – non-surgical medical conditions in adults – place a heavy burden on our health system. The challenges include hypertension, diabetes and strokes. At the moment we do not have any specialists and we are short of staff in various department so it is a huge burden on the hospital and on the community as patients have to wait very long for appointments.”
Wentzel, who was originally from Cape Town, did his under- and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University, his internship in Durban and his community service year in Upington in 2011. He stayed for two years doing paediatrics and met his wife in Upington. “I’ve chosen to live here because I really believe in democratic healthcare for all.
“The reality is that a patient in Cape Town will see a specialist sooner than one in the Northern Cape will. My goal is to bridge that gap, so that even a patient living 400 km from Upington has access to specialist care. Health professionals, have a responsibility to move out of the cities. Besides, it’s great not having to drive for an hour in traffic!”