By Yonathan Alemu, I-TECH Ethiopia Communications Manager, with the I-TECH Communications Team
In Ethiopia, a new master’s degree program in HIV and tropical medicine at the University of Gondar, developed and implemented with I-TECH support, will soon put more health care workers where they are needed most. The first cohort is just months away from graduating, well-prepared to make a difference in the lives of Ethiopians.
A Long Wait for Care
With just a brief glance, anyone can see the rising frustration in the face of Bizuneh Muche, 39.
He’s travelled nearly a hundred kilometers to Gondar referral hospital, in northern Ethiopia, seeking better medication for a fever and cough he’s been struggling with for well over a month. Still, the crowds of people waiting in the ward’s small courtyard make it difficult for him to believe he’ll ever receive the care he’s come for. “I don’t think I will be able to get diagnosed soon,” he says, gesturing helplessly around him. “There are scores of patients here, [I think many will] return to their villages without proper medical care.”
Lend an ear to any of the people waiting patiently throughout the hospital grounds, and Muche’s story becomes a common refrain. Waiting lists number into the hundreds each day in every medical unit in the facility, and although patients come from miles away and wait hours or even days for care, many will never see the small handful of specialists available to treat them.
Soon, however, a new master’s degree program at the University of Gondar, recently transitioned to the University with I-TECH support, will help to alleviate this shortage, graduating and placing more health care workers where they are needed most.
A Chronic Shortage
Despite gains in health care and coverage, Ethiopian health leaders and policy makers have long been challenged by an inadequate number of health care workers in all cadres. Already stretched thin, the country’s health care workforce has been unable to keep pace with the ever-increasing burden of HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, accidents, and resurgent epidemics.
Recognizing that an adequate workforce is key to strengthening its health system, Ethiopian leaders are taking steps to develop the country’s human resources for health. The implementation of the country’s Health Sector Development Plan, which included substantive health reforms by the Ethiopian government, has brought encouraging improvements in the health coverage available to Ethiopians and their use of health services.
Still, the continued human resource challenge can undermine even bold efforts to improve health systems. For example, current and future projects to construct and refurbish Ethiopian heath facilities are expected to increase the accessibility and quality of services provided, but these efforts are persistently challenged by a shortage of highly skilled staff. Without a strong workforce, even the most up-to-date facilities struggle to run efficiently. Many operate below their potential or are unable to take full advantage of existing resources, exacerbating shortfalls.
Meeting the Need: The Tropical Infectious Diseases and HIV/AIDS Medicine Master’s Program
In response to these challenges, I-TECH Ethiopia, the University of Washington, and the University of Gondar have worked together to initiate a new master’s program at Gondar. The new Tropical Infectious Diseases and HIV/AIDS Medicine Master’s Program is designed to graduate highly qualified middle-level health professionals and general practitioners.
The University is in many ways an ideal setting to train and mentor these new infections diseases specialists: it has strong academic credibility, institutional experience, infrastructure, and human resources, and the needs of the patients who visit the facility match the training focus of the program. In addition, the strategic plan of the Medical and Health Sciences College at the University identifies tropical infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS as a major health and societal threat to the region and the country at large.
This year, the first cohort of middle-level health professionals, who came to the program with great deal of experience with, and interest in, in caring for patients with tropical infectious diseases, HIV, or both, is enrolled. Once they enter the workforce, these new graduates have the potential to relieve the tremendous strain currently placed on the handful of infectious diseases specialists, internists, and pediatricians shouldering the burden of care. As Dr. Endalkachew Melese, Health Institutions Director at I-TECH Ethiopia explains, “This program . . . is designed to improve the staffing number and composition of health professionals at district and regional hospitals to [allow them to] function in full swing.” In addition, because the students are sponsored by their respective regions and come to the program from almost all corners of the country, they have the potential to improve health care nationwide when they return home to work.
The new master’s program isn’t a quick fix. For Bizuneh Muche and those standing with him today, the wait will still be long. But for the many patients throughout Ethiopia who will continue to seek quality care, a better future is coming. At the University of Gondar, new cadres of master’s students will soon graduate, well-prepared to provide much-needed care.
Anyone who witnesses the swarms of people flowing to under-staffed referral hospitals across the country knows the hope and promise that these trainees hold to the communities and regions that sponsored them.
Learn more about I-TECH’s work in Ethiopia.