Physician Assistant Department Helps Establish PA Training Program in South Africa

By Purnell T. Cropper | July 29, 2011

By Michelle Tooker ’07,’10M

For the vast majority of South Africa’s population, there is just one practicing doctor for every 4,219 people. In response to this shortage, the South African government created the Clinical Associate profession, which is modeled after America’s Physician Assistant program as well as programs that exist in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Physician Assistant department has joined the efforts to establish the profession thanks to a grant from the American International Health Alliance (AIHA).

“This is our way to help to start a profession and to share the knowledge we’ve gained while witnessing the growth of America’s physician assistant program over the last 45 years,” says Linda Brasel, Academic Coordinator and Dual Degree Advisor. “We’re excited to see how the evolution of the profession will occur in South Africa.”

“In South Africa, there are a lot of people who need help from the health services, but unfortunately there are not always enough health workers. The Clinical Associate Programme gives people the opportunity to study and complete a course in the medical field. Through this, the number of health workers can be increased, which can make a real difference in the country’s health system,” says Chrisjan Ohlhoff, a second-year Clinical Associate student at the University of Pretoria.

“Clinical Associates will play a vitally important role in rural healthcare. From the outset, rural doctors have welcomed this new cadre of workers and have looked forward to working with them,” says Professor Ian Couper, Director at the Centre for Rural Health at the University of the Witwatersrand, in a recent brochure about the profession. “Their support of the team in rural district hospitals will ensure better care for patients and will also enable doctors to engage in greater outreach to clinics.”

The $200,000 grant, which is renewable for two to three years, is part of AIHA’s HIV/AIDS Twinning Center program and is supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief through CDC/South Africa. Twinning Center partnerships help to create peer-to-peer relationships between organizations working to improve services for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. In 2010-2011, three university-to-university partnerships were established in an effort to expand the Clinical Associates program in South Africa, including the one linking Arcadia with the University of Pretoria.

Brasel and Dr. Michael Dryer, Chair and Program Director of the Physician Assistant Program, visited Pretoria in February to begin helping faculty and administrators with curriculum development. They also conducted a needs assessment, and provided advice and feedback on tracking students as they complete their clinicals.

“It’s inspiring to see the dedication of the faculty in South Africa in preparing their students,” says Brasel. “They are very committed to making sure that they all succeed.”

“The faculty is proud of the quality of its Clinical Associate Programme, and of the standards achieved by the first cohorts of students,” says Eric Buch, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria. “We look forward to the graduates playing a vital role in ensuring access to quality care for all South Africans.”

So far 25 students have completed the program, with another 43 slated to finish later this year. In June, Dryer and Brasel made another trip to South Africa to continue their work with the University of Pretoria. Mike Huber, Assistant Professor, and Mandy Seymour will visit the University in October.