South Africa's public health system has many shortcomings. There aren't enough health professionals to serve the 84% of patients who rely on the public sector. The situation is made worse by a growing burden of disease and the population's increasingly complex health needs. For example, many people living with HIV may also have a non-communicable disease such as hypertension.
This is why it's more important than ever that health and care professionals like doctors, nurses and social workers learn to work together as a team. This is referred to as interprofessional collaboration .
Sharing the expertise and experiences of different health and social care professionals can improve the quality of care that's provided. But for this to happen, health professionals need an education that gives them the skills to work effectively in a team.
South Africa's research community is aware of this need.
Recently, a panel of researchers assessed the education health professionals get. The aim was to provide evidence-based advice on how it could be transformed. One of the panel's recommendations was that the curriculum be amended to include inter-professional education and collaborative practice.
Some of this work is already underway. For instance, an undergraduate inter-professional education curriculum is offered to all health and social care students at the University of the Western Cape where I lecture and conduct my research. But more must be done to ensure that everyone involved in the public health sector is equipped to work in teams and so address the country's many challenges.
Why it matters
The World Health Organisation has identified interprofessional education as being fundamental in preparing health professionals to work in teams.
Interprofessional education involves students or practitioners in two or more professions learning together interactively. For example, a physiotherapist, pharmacist, social worker and doctor will learn together to take care of a stroke patient.
Globally inter-professional education takes place in many different countries and across a range of health care settings.
There are champions of interprofessional education and collaborative practice at some African universities. A number have begun to integrate interprofessoinal education and collaborative practice into their health programmes. These include Zambia's Copperbelt University, Moi University in Kenya, Ghana's University of Development Studies, the University of Namibia, the University of Botswana and South Africa's University of Free State.
These initiatives will help build capacity and a critical mass of interprofessional education and collaborative practice practitioners on the continent.
But more work is needed to institutionalise this across regional, national and local health and education systems.
These are examples of collaboration where health professionals, community health workers and community stakeholders are organised into teams. Together, they play a pivotal role in improving access to primary health care for vulnerable communities.
But the latest research, and recommendations, show that universities must do much more to prepare their graduates for this collaborative interprofessional work.
A new model
That's what prompted my colleagues and I at the University of the Western Cape to develop an interprofessional education and collaborative practice model for the health sciences.
Our model prepares health professionals to enter the workplace as a member of a team. It breaks down silos while promoting collaboration. It offers a framework for engaging undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, clinicians, patients and community members in learning with and from each other.
The model has evolved over many years since its inception in 2000 when the first module was offered. We have trained about 6700 graduates so far.
And it's not just current students who can benefit from this training. Even those who are already trained and working in the public health sector need to learn about collaboration and interprofessional teamwork.