In large parts of Africa, decades of war, conflict and instability have left its people with limited access to basic healthcare services. This is aggravated by the fact that the continent carries 25% of the global disease burden and the lowest number of global healthcare worker per capita.
The challenges that impact healthcare service delivery in Africa include (but are obviously not limited to) lacking infrastructure, poor management, lacking equipment, variable care standards and supply chain issues. In 2001, in an attempt to address some of these challenges, the countries belonging to the African Union (AU) committed to allocate 15% of their fiscal budget to healthcare (Abuja declaration 2001). Sadly only six countries succeeded in doing that. It is estimated that even if all of the AU countries allocated 15%, the size of their budgets are simply not enough to address and overcome some of the challenges that face healthcare systems in Africa.
The budget size and lack of allocation or investment in healthcare leads to another problem: dependency on donor funding. Unfortunately donor funding comes with vested interests and may inadvertently contribute to the vertical development of disease specific fields at the expense of horizontal or strengthening of the whole health system. A good example of this is HIV research that across the continent is disproportionately represented and funded.
Because the burden of disease and the demand for healthcare services that’s continuously rising, larger budgets and more healthcare workers are required. Alarmingly statistics demonstrates that in some African countries there has been a decline in the number of healthcare workers over the past twenty years. In addition, there is a known distribution of healthcare workers towards urban areas, leaving rural areas without adequate healthcare delivery structures and staffing.
In most of Africa, the first healthcare worker to provide care to a patient is a nurse (WHO2008). With nurses being the mostly widely spread and available health professionals on the continent, their role cannot be overestimated. Creating more enabling environments for nurses to be educated and work in better conditions should be prioritized. A few issues that seem to be universal to the ability of nurses to perform in Africa are highlighted below. These issues draw on my experience and my conversations with local nurses in the settings in which I’ve worked.
Quality and appropriateness of nurse training
Formal nursing education was brought to Africa by imperialism. This implies that the people who brought formal nursing education to Africa introduced it in a similar way to how it was done in the countries that they came from. Most of these models were (and still are) based on training nurses in-hospital and where one of the primary roles of the nurse is as team member with a medical doctor and others. This is very different from community based care that’s prevalent and required in rural Africa. In most of Africa, the nurse is often a solo practitioner that’s far from hospitals and other team members. The training of the nurses should prepare them for such roles and situations.
Clinical and educational gaps can be identified by furthering research, especially nursing science research in Africa. This then allows the design of curriculum’s that are contextually relevant to the needs of the continent. This is, however, complicated by other issues, namely:
Limited research on indigenous diseases in Africa
Most of the infectious diseases that are endemic to Africa such as schistosomiasis or trypanosomiasis are not well-researched. With limited evidence based guidance, there can be no best nursing practice for these endemic diseases.
The fields that are researched are according to donor specialization and interest. Sun and Larson (2015) did a review of all nursing research from Africa that was published over a decade and found that the most studied areas were associated with funding resources. They also found that prevalent conditions in Africa e.g. malnutrition, diarrhoea disease and other common causes of death were not studied and/or published. This demonstrated a clear gap between the healthcare needs and the fields researched.
Nursing research needs to focus and address the glaring healthcare issues in Africa. Often care in villages is rendered by persons with no training in healthcare, and addressing issues like the need for reliable community based care when developing curriculums or conducting research could impact the health systems tremendously.
Training facilities across Africa lack enough classrooms, electricity, running tap water and technological advances. Internet has been reported as a scarce resource across various training settings in Africa. The access to electronic resources is limiting for both students and educators. Open-access resources have helped to make science more accessible globally, but there is still a high cost to obtaining research and information making it incredibly tough to stay abreast of new guidelines, especially for nurses in Africa.
Clinical guidance in hospitals is lacking and there are limited simulation models at training facilities. At some of the facilities where I’ve conducted training there have been no CPR manikin’s or other additional models for training. In most places we had to innovate and make our own manikins and other adjuncts.
For healthcare workers in rural areas, obtaining further education or refresher training means uprooting and even leaving a healthcare facility unattended for the duration of their training. This should be considered when we think about educating and upskilling nurses.
Knock-on impact of the doctor shortage in Africa
The lack of doctors, especially in rural areas has resulted in task shifting. Task shifting occurs when tasks that would normally be seen as the doctors’ domain, are shifted to nurses. It increases the nurses’ workload and the nurses are expected to perform tasks that they have not received training for.
The distribution of health facilities and different tiers of care means that the large drainage areas in the rural districts are often manned by nurses without any further medical support close by. This means that the nurses working in rural areas are isolated when dealing with cases that are not within their scope of practice, limited clinical guidelines and difficulty in obtaining help. Telemedicine and technology may offer some solutions provided that it can be reliable in areas with limited electricity, currently no internet etc.
In many African countries, graduates are not subject to registration with a statutory body. There may be professional associations, but there is no compulsory registration process and professional licensing. In countries with no regulatory body, there is no representation to lobby for nursing rights or amendments to Acts of Parliament, salaries for nurses or to promote career progression.
Often healthcare worker salaries (including doctors) are not paid on time, if at all. This leads to some healthcare workers having secondary streams of income or funding their own incomes out of privately charging patients’ higher fees.
In most African societies, gender equality has not yet been achieved. Women receive less education than men, they have less rights and their voice are not heard in the same way. Nursing remains a predominantly female profession and this limits the ability of nurses to assert themselves and it impacts on the ability of the profession to influence national policy.
There is a trend where even though the nurse workforce is mainly female at service delivery level, at top management and policy level it’s represented by men. In the DRC it was established that only 1% of the nurses are male, yet more than 90% of the top levels and education facilities positions are filled by men.
The social determinants allowing people to access healthcare includes basic primary education and gender equity amongst other factors. Sadly neither one of these has been achieved for nurses in Africa and it hampers the progress of nursing education and research across the continent.
This tie in with the above, and the fact that because of the role of women in society, nurses being mostly female and the difficulties faced by nurses to render care, career progression may be stunted. Because healthcare workers in rural areas need to travel to further education and because nurses are predominantly women, it is hard for them to leave home and obligations at home to further their career.
Lack of mentorship and language barriers
There is a lack of mentorship to help nurses further themselves as researchers and educators. Organizations such as the AFEM Nurses Group developed a mentorship program with international mentorship support to African nurses. Another program is the Nursing Education Partnership Initiative (NEPI) that was formed in 2011 by PEPFAR to improve nursing and midwifery education in Africa. We need more programs like this.
Mentorship, inclusion into global healthcare networks, research and education are complicated by language barriers. Often nurses working in rural areas do not read or speak English; the language which much of the training material and research is presented in.
It has been postulated that there’s a statistically significant relationship between accessibility to care and civil conflict (Rhode 2015). Unrest and conflict creates havoc on the ability to deliver healthcare, train providers, obtain supplies and in violent prone areas access may be restricted as patients are afraid of travelling. During periods of increased violence, the healthcare facilities are looted and healthcare workers intimidated. In violent prone areas, malnutrition is aggravated, harvests are regularly pillaged and access to fields is restricted due to security conditions.
There are various challenges to improving the fragile healthcare systems in Africa. Nurses form the backbone of healthcare service delivery in Africa. The difficulties faced by nurses across the continent are only one challenge; improving dilapidated health facilities and improving on the poor distribution of essential medicines and supplies are other challenges.
In order to improve healthcare systems, nurses needs to be more involved in policy-making, developing healthcare plans and research.
Please note: Africa is not a country and in some of the African countries, the health system is well-established and working. In other’s it’s not going that well. I’m aware that this blog makes blanket statements, however it refers to my experiences and conversations in the country’s that I have travelled to.
Munjana OK, Kibuka S, Dovlo D. (2005) The nursing workforce in Sub-Saharan Africa. Issue paper no 7. International Council of Nurses.
Sun C. Larson E. (2015) Clinical nursing and midwifery research in African countries: a scoping review. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2015 May;52(5):1011-6. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2015.01.012.
Rohde JT. (2015). The relationship between Access to Healthcare and Civil conflict. College of William and Mary. Honors Theses. Paper 99
Abuja Declaration 2001
Klopper HK, Uys LR. 2012. State of Nursing and Nursing Education in Africa: a country by country review. Sigma Theta Tau international
The nursing Education Partnership Initiative in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (2012). Assessment of nursing and midwifery education and training capacity at seven training institutes in the DRC. Synthesis report. Prepared by CapacityPlus, Intrahealth International