Medical school in crisis

2014-03-28 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine is in a crisis that could potentially lead to its closure.

This comes as a result of a breakdown in its relationship with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, which could see undergraduate and post-graduate courses lose their accreditation.

According to e-mail correspondence between senior staff at the medical school, the situation is described as critical.

The medical school previously had an arrangement with the Department of Health known as the “Joint Medical Establishment” that saw the department finance the salaries of many of the school’s teaching staff. This relationship broke down seven years ago, and negotiations to resurrect it have so far proved unsuccessful.

As a consequence, the department has ceased funding posts at the UKZN medical school, and many posts that have become vacant, including those of heads of department, are now frozen and unfilled. E-mail correspondence among staff indicates the situation has become untenable and that it has had an impact on teaching standards.

A new six-year MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) curriculum began at the school in 2010. According to a statement from the university, the MBChB programme was inspected by the Health Professions Council of South Africa in 2012.

“The inspection team assessed the first two years of the curriculum and provided provisional accreditation. The department is expected to return in 2015, when all six years have rolled out, to provide final accreditation.”

The HPCSA confirmed this and said in a statement that a follow-up accreditation is scheduled for later this year. “The council will only be commenting further once this inspection was conducted.”

The HPCSA’s review of the medical school’s post-graduate programmes takes place in August, at which point it is feared the situation at the medical school will become apparent. This could lead to the HPCSA not accrediting the post-graduate programme, in which case all specialist training would cease. Thereafter, the undergraduate programme would also come under scrutiny and consequently be at risk. If accreditation is withdrawn, this could lead to the closure of the school.

A meeting scheduled for earlier this month between representatives of the medical school and the department of health management committee, in which it was hoped the impasse could be resolved, was postponed by the Health Department until April. According to an e-m­ail from a senior academic to staff, a presentation was to be made at the meeting “indicating the seriousness of the current crisis and the potential for loss of accreditation”.

Responding to this e-mail, a senior staff member indicated that if the issue of service levels and frozen posts was not addressed urgently, the medical school “runs the risk of being embarrassed by non-accreditation”.

However, university spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said in a statement issued yesterday that there was no risk, adding that the university “has applied for funding for vacant posts at the medical school and are awaiting a response on this from the Department of Health [DOH] … The university is continuously engaging with the DOH on this matter.”

The department was approached for comment but had not responded at the time of going to press.

The department currently owes R3 billion to the National Health Laboratory Service, which withdrew its services last week following the department’s failure to respond to a demand for payment of the outstanding debt.

The Department of Higher Education was also contacted for comment — it currently funds a small number of posts at the medical school — but it had not responded at the time of going to press.

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