I have been hearing horror stories of how those who are considered to be foreign-trained medical doctors in Namibia have been making errors that have near-fatal consequences. The said doctors mainly studied in Russia, China and Ukraine. I heard of a China-trained doctor, who had their licence to practice medicine in Namibia revoked after an incident that allegedly almost cost a patient their life. In another incident, a Ukraine-trained doctor could not tell the difference between a syringe used to administer intravenous fluids (drip) and one used for normal injection. Those at Namibian hospitals claim that some of these doctors have been failing to even treat some of the most common diseases found in Namibia.
I came across some of these anecdotes while listening to Namibians debate around a standoff between the country’s health professions council and a number of foreign-trained doctors who failed their medical board exams. The student doctors took the council to court hoping for the exam to be nullified on technical grounds. These exams are mandatory, especially when a medical doctor or practitioner was trained in a different jurisdiction from the one they intend to practice. This has been a universally accepted standard and procedure.
This is not the first time this happens. In 2017, 54 Namibian medical graduates with international degrees were barred from practising medicine in the country after failing a mandatory examination to test their competency. Registrar of the Health Professions Councils of Namibia, Cornelius Weyulu, was quoted saying out of 99 graduates who underwent the evaluation, only 45 were cleared for the health ministry's 2018 medical internship programme.
While Namibia is debating whether those trained in the said countries lack competencies to be entrusted with Namibian lives, the same scandal also hit South Africa. This week, the City Press published an article stating that 44 students studied medicine for three years in China just to find that their qualifications were incompatible with what is required in South Africa. That country’s authorities then elected to send the said students to Russia to complete their studies because the country’s health professions council had rejected the Chinese qualification. The Russian authorities have, however, made it a requirement that these students start from scratch if they are to study in Russia. The paper further reported that the South African Parliament was briefed on this situation last year.
I am not going to discuss the merits of the court case or the complaints by the students, nor will I defend the authorities and their arguments. What worries me is the fact that Africa has become a place where standards have been relaxed or completely scrapped for “political reasons”. I am worried that the Namibian and South African public might be dealt a raw deal. I am worried that authorities might just cave in to political pressure and entrust our lives into the hands of these doctors, whose competencies have serious question marks. Despite variations, like language, from different jurisdictions, testing for competencies in a doctor should remain easy since a doctor is a doctor anywhere in the world. Because of these, I am sure there are standard checks universally to determine the competencies of a would-be doctor. What terrified me the most was information I heard that some of our doctors are not even allowed to practice, let alone put their hands on a patient in their country of training.
It is up to the health professions councils to safeguard the public’s interest and ensure that only competent doctors are allowed to treat us and those making decisions also subject themselves to be treated by these doctors.