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World Health Worker Week: Celebrating Mid-level Pharmacists in South Africa

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When you think about healthcare providers this week, most likely you’ll think about doctors and nurses, but there are many other health workforce cadres that play a critical role in keeping people healthy. This story is about how Pharmacy Techs are helping improve
patient care in South Africa.

Mid-level healthcare workers are in high demand, yet short supply as South Africa works to meet its rapidly increasing needs for health and allied care professionals. Pharmacy services are no exception, but unfortunately the country currently produces fewer than half of the optimal number of 2,500 pharmacy support personnel it needs to graduate annually, according to the South African Pharmacy Council.

NMMU pharmacy technician student Andiswa Hlanjwa speaks about her externship experience at a community pharmacy during a university event.

NMMU pharmacy technician student Andiswa Hlanjwa speaks about her externship experience at a community pharmacy during a university event.

Pharmacy technician students like Andiswa Hlanjwa are poised to make a tremendous difference thanks to the education and hands-on training they are receiving through Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) programs for training two new mid-level pharmacy cadres known as Pharmacy Technical Assistants (PTAs) and Pharmacy Technicians (PTs).

“I was interested in pursuing a health science career, so I enrolled in NMMU’s Pharmacy Technician course in 2013. That year, I studied for the first-level program that qualifies you to be a PTA,” Hlanjwa explains, noting that at first she had little knowledge of what the program would entail.

“After attending lectures, class activities, and practicums, I soon found out that the course presented a broad spectrum of knowledge. What I was learning not only focused on my own scope of practice, but also helped me to understand how other health professionals work within the health sector,” she continues.

“This prepares us to work together as a team that has one goal in mind — the patients’ wellbeing,” Hlanjwa stresses.

Acquiring hands-on practical skills is a key element of the PTA and PT training programs at NMMU. This helps prepare students to hit the ground running as important members of the healthcare team once they complete their studies.

“During externships, students are given the opportunity to work in a pharmacy under the supervision of a

NMMU is training two new mid-level pharmacy cadres known as Pharmacy Technical Assistants and Pharmacy Technicians as a way to overcome South Africa’s severe shortage of health workers.

NMMU is training two new mid-level pharmacy cadres known as Pharmacy Technical Assistants and Pharmacy Technicians as a way to overcome South Africa’s severe shortage of health workers.

pharmacist. For me, this was an adventure on its own,” Hlanjwa admits with a smile on her face. “I had never worked in a pharmacy before and this was such a worthwhile experience. I was in a place where I got to take part in real-life discussions with patients who were asking for advice, as opposed to role-playing or imagining different scenarios during practical sessions at school,” she says.

Hlanjwa selected a community pharmacy, which she says provided a very welcoming place to learn.

“Staff there were happy to have me. They guided me throughout the duration of my externship,” she recalls, explaining that at first she was very scared. “It felt like all the knowledge I had learned was gone from my mind, but then some of the patient cases started relating very well to what I learned in class. Working in the pharmacy helped me understand my school work even more,” she says, stressing, “What inspired me the most was seeing how the patients trusted with the health professionals and the confidence they had in their treatment and advice.”

“I believe that the program is not only creating job opportunities, but also it brings forth hope that more patients are going to be given the best service and treatment in the communities where they live, both through public and private sector healthcare facilities.”

— Andiswa Hlanjwa

“Andiswa is a wonderful young lady and it was a pleasure to have her in our store,” says Andre Nel, a pharmacist at Dis-Chem Somermall, where Hlanjwa did her externship in July 2015. “She was extremely helpful and really made a difference in our dispensary and the over-the-counter section. If she continues with this positive and friendly attitude, then there lies a great future ahead of her. People like Andwisa give me great hope for the future of our youth in South Africa.”

From her perspective, Hlanjwa says that she learned so much about various diseases and conditions and the medications used to treat them. “I also learned the importance of attention to detail and accuracy to ensure treatment does not result in an adverse event that will be harmful to the patient,” she explains, noting that her experience working in a primary healthcare center exposed her to a different environment that painted a clearer picture of the roles of nurses, doctors, and other caregivers.

“My school and externship experiences helped me see the treatment of patients and the shortage of staff back home in a better way,” she says.

NMMU and STLCOP partners during a professional exchange in St. Louis.  These exchanges provide peer-to-peer learning opportunities, sharing of best practices, and time to collaboratively adapt successful programs to meet local needs.

NMMU and STLCOP partners during a professional exchange in St. Louis. These exchanges provide peer-to-peer learning opportunities, sharing of best practices, and time to collaboratively adapt successful programs to meet local needs.

South African faculty and staff who implement NMMU’s PTA and PT training programs have been supported in their efforts through a twinning partnership with the St. Louis College of Pharmacy (STLCOP) that was launched in May 2013 by AIHA with funding from PEPFAR and CDC/South Africa.

Faculty development is a primary objective of the partnership and is implemented through development of teaching materials and workshops in innovative teaching and assessment methodologies. To enhance the experience of students before they enter the workforce, US partners have been helping NMMU develop and manage a clinical experiential rotation program in various pharmacy work settings, such as Hlanjwa’s externships.

“I believe that the program is not only creating job opportunities, but also it brings forth hope that more patients are going to be given the best service and treatment in the communities where they live, both through public and private sector healthcare facilities,” Hlanjwa concludes.

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