Incompetent HPCSA slams door on foreign-trained specialists

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When South African-trained doctors Tamara and Gideon Maresky returned to South Africa in August 2010 after specialising in the US, they were excited. Both had double certifications – Tamara as an adult and child psychiatrist and Gideon as a general surgeon and plastic surgeon – and were keen to work in poor communities. But, says a Health-e News report, after five exhausting years of battling with the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) to get their qualifications recognised, they're considering leaving the country.

"I am passionate about working with women and children in under-served communities, but I am heart-sore that the HPCSA has made it so difficult," says Tamara. There are only 16 child psychiatrists in public health in the entire country, yet it took the HPCSA four-and-a half years to issue Harvard-trained Tamara with a certificate allowing her to practice as one. She had to do community service for a year, paid at the level of a newly qualified doctor not a specialist, while she waited.

But, the report says, the council's decision concerning Gideon, the family's main breadwinner, was bizarre and punitive. Delivered after a four-year delay, it demanded that he complete a "self-funded" year, working without pay as a registrar (trainee surgeon) before they would allow him to practice as a plastic surgeon because they were concerned that he didn't have enough experience. Gideon consulted a lawyer who advised that the only way he could challenge the HPCSA decision was to go to the High Court but warned that there was no legal precedence for doing so and his chances of success were unclear.

As the Mareskys have studied for many years and not amassed the kind of money that would allow them to engage in a court battle, they have decided to make a recce to Australia instead, the report says. "We are resourceful and resilient, but we have really reached a dead end," says Tamara. "After 15 years of studying, and five years waiting for the HCPSA, it is just not feasible for Gideon to work for a year as an unpaid registrar – especially as we don’t even know whether that will be enough. The HPCSA told us before we left the US that we would have not problem in registering."

Sadly, the report says, the Mareskys' case is not rare. The HPCSA, the body that regulates health professionals in the country and adjudicates the public’s complaints against health professionals, is notoriously dysfunctional –particularly when it comes to health workers with foreign qualifications. "They act as if we have a glut of doctors in the country," says Dr Mark Sonderup , vice-chair of the SA Medical Association (SAMA), a voluntary association representing doctors. SAMA is so disillusioned by the "inefficient and bloated" medical and dental board, one of 12 professional boards within the HPCSA that regulate different health professionals, that it wants doctors and dentists to have their own independent regulatory body. "We want doctors and dentists to be afforded the same courtesy as pharmacists and nurses, by having our own independent regulatory authority," said Sonderup. The nursing and pharmacy professions have their own independent regulatory authorities.

In March, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi appointed a task team to investigate the council, saying that he had "received a lot of complaints about governance, efficiency, effectiveness and sometimes even the competency of the management of the HPCSA". Task team chair Professor Bongani Mayosi confirmed that the task team had recently completed its work, which included public submissions, and handed a report to the Minister. "I can't tell you a thing about the report. The Minister is considering it, but my understanding is that there will be an announcement some time this month," said Mayosi, who heads the University of Cape Town's department of medicine, and is designated to be the next dean of UCT's medical School.

The report says the task team was swamped with public submissions, including around 30 from staff and former staff, some of whom reported being sacked after trying to expose corruption and irregularities. One of the irregularities considered by the task team concerned the council’s computer system, Oracle, which was initially due to cost R21m but which had actually cost R43m by 2012.

The HPCSA has a long history, dating back to 1928 when mandatory registration for doctors, nurses and pharmacists was introduced. In 1971, professional boards for physiotherapy, optometry, medical technology, chiropody, health inspectors, occupational therapy, psychology, radiography, speech therapy, audiology, dietetics, oral hygiene, opticians and clinical technology were set up.

Ironically, the health professionals' right to nominate representatives to their respective boards was removed during the democratic post-apartheid era, the report says. In 2007, then Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang engineered a change to the Health Professions Act to ensure that representatives of the 12 boards would be appointed by the Department of Health, not their professions, despite the fact that members pay annual fees to the HPCSA. In doing so, she ensured that council representatives answered to government rather than the professionals that they are supposed to govern.

But according to the report, critics say that the biggest failing of the HPCSA is its inefficiency. Board members are mostly busy professionals who don’t have time to attend to day-to-day council business. Confusion exists about whether the part-time board committee chairpersons or council administrative staff are supposed to respond to professionals’ complaints and queries and as a result, professionals can wait many months for replies. The waters are further muddied by a multitude of sub-committees under each of the 12 boards, with overlapping mandates and no clear terms of reference. In short, a bloated bureaucratic mess that is very hard to navigate.

Somehow, the report says, Motsoaledi has to find a way to cut through this Byzantine monster and establish the council as an efficient, credible regulator that has the confidence of professionals and the public. The solution is neither fast nor easy, and needs to include the option of an independent medical council, elected by members of the medical profession, given that, after emergency care practitioners, doctors are the largest group falling under the HPCSA.

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