Nelson Mandela University celebrates first paramedic graduates

2018-04-25 06:01

SOUTH Africa has a critical shortage of qualified paramedics. It is a scarce skill, with a total of just under 2 300 qualified advanced life support paramedics.

To grow the number of professional paramedics in this country, Nelson Mandela University has been offering its Bachelor in Emergency Medical Care (BEMC) programme since 2014 – and yesterday celebrated its very first 15 graduates.

The university is one of just four tertiary institutions offering the qualification in South Africa.

“The need for paramedics is massive,” said Nico Louw, who heads up the university’s BEMC programme.

“There is one paramedic for every 22 000 members of the population. In the Eastern Cape, that ratio is even worse: one paramedic to 120 000 people.”

Fourteen of the 15 graduates have chosen to work in the Eastern Cape.

Louw pointed out that paramedics are different from ambulance staff, who only need to complete a four-week course in basic life support to qualify for an entry-level job.

They can go on to complete a three-month intermediate life support course after working 1 000 hours.

However, Louw says there are over 100 000 people with the basic qualification and just 16 000 with the intermediate qualification.

“There is an oversupply of staff with the basic qualification, and not enough of those with a higher qualification.”

Should someone with an intermediate qualification go on to complete a further 10-month advanced life support course, after completing 1 000 working hours, they would then qualify as paramedics – however, these days, this three-tiered short course system is being phased out in favour of a three-tiered tertiary qualification structure, namely one and two-year higher certificate and diploma programmes and the four-year degree course.

This is part of a drive by the Department of Health to elevate the level of education of all emergency care personnel in South Africa.

Louw said while a paramedic’s skills were essential, they were not easy and the university tried to prepare the students for any situation through a series of endurance events during their studies.

“Our working environment is unique. It’s outside, in the sticks, in the gutter, in the valley, on the beach, in the surf, in hotels, in flats, in shacks – that’s where we go to treat patients.

The endurance events students must complete include a 36-hour endurance event, where first-year students are dropped off and have to hike, swim or paddle from point A to point B, some 60 to 70km away.

Second-year students must complete “Masiphakameni”, which Louw calls “the 48-hour shift from hell”.

“Never will they ever experience a worse shift than this. It starts at 7am, on campus. We give them many realistic yet challenging simulated calls.”

In third year, the students embark on a “Wilderness search and rescue hike,” where they spend five days in the mountains in a simulated search for lost hikers, working in partnership with the Air Force, the Mountain Club of South Africa and the SAPS dog unit.

“In fourth year, we simulate an international rescue mission scenario,” said Louw, who himself has assisted in international emergencies, including rescue efforts in Nepal in 2015.

“It is dangerous to be a paramedic – and there have been many instances where paramedics have been targeted by criminals, while on the job,” he said.

Despite this, he is passionate about the profession and about training tomorrow’s practitioners.

“I love what I do and am thrilled to be celebrating our first BEMC graduates at Nelson Mandela University.”


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