South Africa has begun producing a new type of health professional – a clinical associate.
You can read a bit more about clinical associates here but, in brief, they are people ideally suited to working in hospitals, helping doctors carry out some of their tasks – like dealing with emergencies and doing procedures.
Clinical associates don’t replace doctors or nurses – they work with them, sharing some of their workload, and allowing them to concentrate on the tasks for which only they are qualified.
There is no doubt that more doctors and nurses need to be trained and recruited into the South African health system. But will this alone solve the country’s staff shortages? Realistically, how many decades will it take to fill all the country’s vacant posts? Can the country afford a system exclusively based on doctors and nurses? Is this even necessary?
It takes less time to train a clinical associate. They can become very good at what they do because they focus on a special set of skills and are supervised by doctors. They are recruited from rural and disadvantaged communities. Health workers a bit like them have made an enormous difference to many health systems around the world, especially in Africa but even in the United States.
So clinical associates could do a lot to address staff shortages in the public sector, especially in district hospitals. They could help bring good quality care closer to communities in a way that is affordable for the country. Along with other initiatives – such as strengthening hospital management – they could help produce public services that live up to the aspirations of the NHI policy.
So why isn’t there more excitement about this new category of health professional? Why don’t we hear about them in the press or from government spokespeople?
Clinical associates are noted as a priority in the latest government human resource strategy but the future of clinical associates and the strategy of NHI need to become much more closely intertwined.