The opening of the Nelson Mandela University medical school is a boost for public health and will play an integral role in the provision of healthcare in rural and township hospitals. This is according to Health Minister Joe Phaahla at the launch of the Gqeberha-based medical school on Tuesday.
The school is the 10th in the country, the second in the Eastern Cape and the first for the region of Nelson Mandela Bay.
It accepted its first cohort of 50 first-year students in March and, according to vice-chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the intake of students will grow to 81 next year and the institution has already received about 5 500 applications.
Phaahla said the opening of the medical school was a “great investment” for achieving universal coverage and the location of it was critical for public health – it is at the university’s township campus, Missionvale, next to Zwide township.
“This will conveniently enable students to undergo practicals and in-service training in both urban and peri-urban environments in district hospitals, as part of their academic progress. It will eliminate the current challenge we’re having with students who are reluctant to accept posts in rural and township hospitals and other health facilities for internship and community service to complete their academic programme, simply because they studied and lived in the cities,” said Phaahla.
“We have seen through our community service and intensive programme that there are still some medical students who aspire to the limited specialisation which will not always address the primary challenges of poor communities.” Phaahla said:
Speaking at the launch, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said the National Skills Fund – an entity of the department – had contributed R73 million to assist the university in establishing the medical school.
Muthwa said the medical school was a “historic milestone”, not only for the university but for the region as well.
“I feel extremely privileged to be part of this moment. And we witness a dream that has been brought to life, Minister, through the collective efforts, perseverance and courage of our internal and external supporters, often under very trying circumstances.”
Muthwa also acknowledged Walter Sisulu University – which had been the only university in the Eastern Cape with a medical school – as one of the institutions that her university had relied on in the process of establishing the medical school.
She said the school would embrace a comprehensive primary healthcare approach underpinned by the pillars of disease prevention, treatment and rehabilitative medicine.
“We believe in an integrated interprofessional approach to healthcare, which addresses the underlying speciality social determinants of health, such as access to decent housing, education and social services.
Our community-based ethos aims to cultivate socially conscious medical doctors, who will be able to compete globally, but who also have a deep passion to change the lives of vulnerable under-serviced communities in our country and in our region.”
Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane said the province was vastly rural and had had a challenge with medical students who did not want to serve in rural communities.
He said he hoped that the medical school would inculcate a culture of caring in medical students so that the scale of knowledge they would acquire would benefit all citizens, particularly the vulnerable.
Name medical school after former executive dean
All speakers at the launch hailed the role that had been played by the late executive dean of health sciences at the university, Professor Lungile Pepeta, who had died last year from Covid-19 complications.
Pepeta had joined the university in 2017 and was instrumental in the establishment of the medical school.
All those who spoke at the launch, including the chair of council Nozipho January-Bardill, chancellor Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Eastern Cape MEC of health Nomakhosazana Meth, acknowledged the role Pepeta had played in the establishment of the school.
Mabuyane said that, in honour of Pepeta, “it would be iconic” to name a section or even a lecture room after him “to inspire a generation of young doctors to emulate his values of selflessness and pursuit of excellence in the medical fraternity”.
Nzimande hailed Pepeta for having laid a “strong foundation for this medical school”. He said he hoped the university would name the medical school after him.
“I certainly think it would be highly appreciated. I am also strongly of the view that it is time that we did not name public facilities only after political leaders but also after leaders or ordinary men and women who had made excellent and distinguished contributions in other societal or community endeavours.”
The student representative council president, Pontsho Hlongwane, also said that the student body was proposing that the school be named after him to preserve his legacy.
“He was planning to teach disease prevention and health promotion alongside treatment options and rehabilitation medicine. As a starting point, he fought to establish this medical school which he was clear and content was for rural doctors.
“That is why, as student activists, we vow to protect his legacy by ensuring that this medical school remains a space where black rural doctors are trained and, to ensure that we don’t forget about his mission, we propose that this medical school be named after him and we must have annual memorial lectures for him.”
Hlongwane added that he hoped the graduates who would come out of the medical school would provide public health services to “our people”.