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Reduced years for medical studies? – Thisday

By The Citizen

It will have negative consequences for the nation

While declaring open a two-day conference on 'Human Resources for Health in Nigeria' last week, the Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, recommended a reduction of years in medical studies. According to the minister, the duration of medical studies in the country's educational curricula was unhelpful given that students were made to stay several years in school without a commensurate impact on the type of services they can render after graduation. 'We need to reduce the number of years people spend in medical schools, some get up to doing seven years, why is it so?' asked Chukwu

Against the background that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently observed that there are shortages of medical doctors, nurses and midwives in many African countries including Nigeria, it is understandable that the health authorities would worry. But the solution being proposed is not only lazy, it would be counterproductive. If some of those who spend long years in medical schools still come out without the requisite professional competence as claimed by Chukwu, what would then happen when the duration of the course is reduced?

We hasten to say that the minister’s view, if correctly reported, is naive and uninformed. The human resource crisis in our healthcare sector is more than a shortage of paramedics or the number of years spent in training to be a doctor. With medical schools that are inadequately staffed and hardly equipped, shortening the training span for doctors is an invitation to license more professional quacks.

In some countries like the United States for instance, you can’t even be admitted into a medical school unless you already have a credible science degree. That adds at least four years to a normally lengthy medical programme. Foreign doctors who want to practise in the US have to pass the requisite exams and mostly undergo additional training, otherwise they would only be employed as auxiliaries if at all hired.

If the idea is to find solution to the growing healthcare challenge of our nation, there are models to copy without compromising on the training of medical doctors. For instance, Cuba solved the problem of inadequate manpower for its ambitious universal healthcare in the 60s and into the 70s  by introducing the famous ‘barefoot doctors’, hordes of crash trained paramedics who roamed the countryside and urban poor neighbourhoods carrying basic medical tools to deal with emergencies and primary health challenges. But here, our authorities are broaching the idea of reducing medical school years as if that would solve what has become a gigantic systemic problem. What about facilities, laboratories, equipment, infrastructure? Besides, there are other pertinent questions: with the incessant strikes in our public universities, how many undergraduate medical students have had their years of stay lengthened from seven to ten years? How many of them have lost their minds because either the strike occurs just at his/her qualifying exam or a supervisor fails him/her in the sixth year?

Medicine is a high-pressure course but some universities still treat it like a joke. In the meantime new technologies and modern methods are going on in other places where our citizens run to for help. Customer service is the new gold in establishments for client retention and satisfaction but that is hardly the case in our country. At almost all our hospitals, you have personnel of the medical records who are rude, laboratory staff who are lousy and receptionists who often look nonplussed. Today most members of staff of public hospitals including some doctors still act like they are in the Stone Age. So to that extent, our medical schools do need re-inventing. But the solution is not in shortening the length of years to obtain a medical degree.