The shortage of skilled clinical researchers is an important obstacle that will need to be addressed if reform of South Africa’s healthcare system is to be sustainable.
“High quality clinical research, which requires a sound understanding of epidemiological and statistical methods, improves patient care because it provides insight and analysis of the causes, distribution, and control of diseases in local communities,” says Novartis Head of Global Development, US and Global Head Integrated Global Development Functions Group (IGDF), Dr Patrice Matchaba.
“Because it provides scientifically valid answers to questions about diagnosis, prevention, therapy, prognosis and underlying causes of diseases, it can help policy makers channel the necessary funds to where they are needed most.”
But a shortage of skilled clinical researchers could hamper the country’s ability to deliver affordable, proven and effective pharmaceutical treatments to more South Africans. “Many developing countries face this problem, as clinical researchers tend to follow funding and emigrate to Europe and America,” says Matchaba. He says for a National Health Insurance (NHI) to be successful, South Africa needs to develop researchers at all levels – in government, NGOs, hospitals and academic institutions.
Development of researchers
In recognition of the major role of clinical research in the effective functioning of healthcare in South Africa and the importance of partnering with leading academic institutes, Novartis has put in place a number of programmes to develop skilled clinical researchers in the country.
“Innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors are one of the most effective ways of increasing the pool of healthcare professionals in South Africa,” says Matchaba. “We need to find new ways of building South Africa’s scientific research capabilities.”
Together with Stellenbosch University, Novartis is offering study grants to 30 postgraduate medical students throughout Africa over a period of three years. This will cover tuition and enable them to complete a Master of Science Degree in Clinical Epidemiology at Stellenbosch University.
The programme emphasises evidence-based healthcare, which provides candidates with the necessary skills to generate and apply reliable, up-to-date evidence in clinical practice.
The study grants offer a chance for research students to gain insight into some of the latest innovations and thinking in clinical research and drug development internationally. Novartis has more than 13 000 scientists globally in research and development who are able to share valuable skills and experience.
SA has unique challenges
“Because clinical research plays such an important role in informing healthcare choices and decisions, research findings have major economic and social implications,” says the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Prof Jimmy Volmink.“South Africa has unique healthcare challenges and clinical researchers who conduct local research are at the forefront of the search for practical solutions.”
As part of this programme, Novartis and Stellenbosch University is hosting a Clinical Research workshop from 29 – 31 August where lectures will be delivered by Novartis scientists from across the world.
The annual event brings together postgraduate students, practicing clinicians and academic staff who are interested in epidemiology, biostatistics, modelling and simulation, as well as the role of social media in providing health-related information. Matchaba says South Africa has the potential to be one of the top five clinical research countries in the world because of its diverse population and disease profile. “But in order to capitalise on this, the technical infrastructure as well as regulatory environment needs to support the development of a clinical research industry,” he says.
“Approval of clinical trials for drugs used to treat priority illnesses and diseases could be expedited to benefit more patients,” says Matchaba. “The research and development process for innovative drugs is lengthy, so the longer it takes to approve the clinical trial, the longer patients have to wait to access new treatments,” he adds. The medicine approval process can be affected by a lack of clinical research capacity. Matchaba says a scientific approach that is open, entrepreneurial and collegial fosters a positive research environment and creates high-skilled jobs.
As part of another Novartis programme to enhance clinical research capacity in South Africa, two South African medical students will also be attending the Novartis International Biotechnology Camp (Bio-Camp) in Basel, Switzerland.
This three day seminar targets top postgraduate students interested in pursuing a career in biotechnology. Participants will get the opportunity to gain an insiders’ perspective of the challenges and opportunities in the biotechnology industry through seminars led by leaders from across the world. This year 60 selected students from various African countries will attend.
“Our goal at Novartis is to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists – building the talent pool of leaders for the entire healthcare industry,” says Matchaba.