Winner 3: Umthombo Youth Development Foundation


The health innovator:

Dr Andrew Ross, Umthombo Youth Development Foundation, KwaZulu-Natal

The Innovation

The Umthombo Youth Development Foundation addresses skills shortages in rural healthcare, by providing scholarships for promising youngsters who can then return to their communities as qualified healthcare professionals.

Winner of the Minding the Gap Award at the 2014 Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit

The action

Between the Indian Ocean and the Lubombo mountain range, lies a district of KwaZulu-Natal called Umkhanyakude. It’s an untouched home to wetlands and wildlife, forests, creeks and lagoons. It’s also home to malaria, TB, HIV/ AIDS and sparse electricity, piped water, sanitation and services.

Only five public hospitals and their clinics serve more than 500 000 people. There’s a chronic shortage of healthcare staff – a serious need that’s beginning to be addressed by the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation.

How do you build a pool of bright, fully qualified healthcare professionals who are eager and able to help communities in need? The answer: reach out to the communities themselves. Umthombo, formerly the Friends of Mosvold Scholarship Scheme, was set up in 1998 to do just that. It aims to uplift young people in rural KZN and the Eastern Cape by providing scholarships for those with the passion and promise to become healthcare workers.

The brightest of the crop return to their roots, as doctors, optometrists, psychologists, physiotherapists, nutritionists, social workers and more. New graduates repay their scholarships through the capital of work – one year of practice for each year of study.

It’s really working, says Umthombo Founder and Trustee Dr Andrew Ross. “We had people telling us, ‘It’s impossible, you’ll never find the right people. And even if you do, they’ll never succeed at university. And even if they do, they’ll never go back home to practice.’” he recalls.

Wrong, on all counts. The programme has already produced 180 graduates in 16 health professions, and over 80% are still working in rural healthcare, within their home communities. Only seven have moved into private practice. Umthombo graduates can communicate with patients in their mother tongue, and are held in high esteem in their communities. As part of the programme, they also go back to their high schools and motivate other students. “The fact that you’ve got local students going back to their home communities encourages everyone else in the area,” says Dr Ross.

For director of the Foundation Dr Gavin MacGregor, the big lesson has been that rural youth don’t have to trade their roots for success. “There’s huge potential for greatness here,” he says. “We need to develop these areas, not just give up and go to the city.”

That said, rural youth are sent to cities to study at tertiary institutions. Here, far from home, they face challenges including English as a medium of instruction, and the fast pace of academic programmes.

Living up to its name, meaning “well-spring” in Nguni languages, Umthombo acts as an important source of support. This is delivered through a mentorship programme headed by Dumisani Gumede, who graduated as a physiotherapist in 2004. There are 14 volunteer mentors across the country, offering practical guidance and moral support by SMS, email and monthly meet-ups. Holiday work at local hospitals also assists students with practical skills, and helps build relationships with hospital staff.

This is all part of a project that has become a model of rural healthcare across South Africa. It’s a source of great hope for young people and patients. It’s a well-spring.

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The lesson learned

Sometimes, the best solutions are those that lie closest to home. Find ways to unlock and harness the potential of young people in their own communities, and you’ll be helping to lay the foundations for the future.

ALL THE WINNING INNOVATIONS IN HEALTHCARE: Nominations poured in. There were so many innovators to consider and commend. But, at the close of the first Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit (IHIS) in Cape Town 2014, a winner (or two) was finally chosen from the finalists in each of the five award categories. Meet the prize-winning people and projects here… Collaborative Reimagining Award: → Operation Sakuma Sakhe  → Electronic Continuity Of Care Record (eCCR) / Transforming the System from the Inside Out Award: → Parents Guidance Centre Reakgona  → AfriTox / Minding the Gap Award: → Umthombo Youth Development Foundation /Inclusive Technology Award: → Praekelt Foundation / Pioneering Approaches Award: → Kheth’Impilo

Adapted from the 2014 Health Innovator’s Review, compiled by Inclusive Healthcare Innovation, a joint initiative between the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business, and the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences.

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