African Medical Education Being Transformed by U.S. Program

Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, MEPI’s principal investigator at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, leads a discussion with a group of Makerere medical students.
Dr. Nelson Sewankambo, MEPI’s principal investigator at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, leads a discussion with a group of Makerere medical students.
01 August 2014

Washington — Medical education in sub-Saharan Africa is being revitalized and expanded through a U.S.-funded effort that is increasing enrollment, broadening lesson plans, upgrading Internet access and providing cutting-edge skills and technologies.

In the first substantial publication by participants in the $130 million Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI), more than 225 authors detailed progress being made at the African institutions. Their reports are in a supplement published July 31 by the journal Academic Medicine.

Begun in 2010, MEPI is funded by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the National Institutes of Health.

“MEPI is a major venture in international educational innovation that has generated new thinking, energy and optimism in the field of medical education in Africa,” the program partners write in a foreword to the supplement.

The 32 articles include case studies of national strategies to increase numbers of doctors and health professionals; educational innovations such as e-learning and regional training sites; research capacity development; and partnerships that spread advances across the MEPI network.

MEPI participants provided details of accomplishments made through the program, including:

• In Zimbabwe, medical student and postgraduate enrollment have both nearly doubled, from 260 in 2010 to 513 in 2013, and the Ministry of Higher Education has committed additional financial support to sustain the progress.

• A decentralized training network of 14 regional hospitals has been established in Kenya; it has provided instruction for more than 300 medical, nursing, dental and pharmacy students.

• Internal medicine physicians were in short supply in Mozambique, so salary supplements, Internet access and notebook computers were offered to encourage recruitment, resulting in an increase in internal medicine residents from 10 before MEPI to 75 in 2012.

• Fourteen new master’s level programs were begun in Zambia, including physiological sciences, pharmacology, anatomy, pathology, microbiology and nursing.

• A virtual microscopy system was introduced in Zambia, containing 4,000 electronic images, which increased student access and is more cost-effective than optical microscopy using glass slides.

• A research administration office was created in Ethiopia to help faculty in grant writing and management, and 18 faculty members were supported in presenting their research at international conferences.

The supplement includes commentaries from global health experts such as former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Eric Goosby, MEPI Coordinating Center principal investigator Dr. Francis G. Omaswa, and Fogarty International Center Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.

The critical shortage of physicians, researchers and health care workers across sub-Saharan Africa spurred MEPI’s creation, the National Institutes of Health said in a July 31 press release. While the region suffers 25 percent of the global burden of disease, it has only 3 percent of the world’s health care workers, according to the World Health Organization.

The impact of HIV/AIDS created an urgent need to increase capacity, wrote Goosby and his co-author Deborah von Zinkernagel, former PEPFAR deputy. “Although concerns arose that resources were being diverted from ‘services,’ it was evident to PEPFAR leadership that the ongoing and expanding needs of the HIV-infected community could not be successfully sustained without increasing the number of trained health professionals,” they wrote.

By awarding the grants directly to African institutions, MEPI is cultivating sustainable local leadership, Omaswa said. “For Africa to accelerate the speed of the ongoing transformation, it is necessary for Africans to step up and take ownership and responsibility for what happens in their own backyards,” he said.

Research is embedded in instruction developed through MEPI, to expand local capacity that will drive innovation. African scientists have already contributed to many HIV-related advances, such as the development of rapid diagnostics for detecting and monitoring HIV infections, noted Glass and his Fogarty co-authors. “The research perspective provided to students and faculty, the ability to raise and answer questions, and the idea that medical knowledge and practice are continually changing are being supported by MEPI sites and will hopefully endure long after the program ends,” they continued.

Initially conceived as a five-year program, MEPI funders and participants are developing plans for a second phase of investment in Africa’s medical education, the National Institutes of Health press release said.