Wits opens new R22m surgery training facility to counter brain-drain

Aron Hyman Reporter
Wits University vice-chancellor Prof Zeblon Vilakazi speaks at the opening of the Wits advanced surgical skills lab on Tuesday.
Wits University vice-chancellor Prof Zeblon Vilakazi speaks at the opening of the Wits advanced surgical skills lab on Tuesday.
Image: Wits

The University of the Witwatersrand opened a R22m surgical skills lab in Johannesburg on Tuesday, a day after opening a new genetics lab and two weeks after announcing a R70m burns unit.

The new Wits advanced surgical skills lab was built to train surgical specialists and sub-specialists, of which there is a critical shortage in SA. According to the university, it is estimated that the country has only half the number of surgeons available to fully meet its needs.

Additionally, SA has been bleeding surgical experts to more competitive overseas markets in part because of the country’s lack of sufficient highly specialised facilities, infrastructure and advanced academic training programmes.

This is according to Wits university spokesperson Shirona Patel, who announced on Tuesday that the new state of the art unit was opened on the ninth floor of the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences building in Parktown.

She said it was designed in line with international best standards and was installed with the latest technologies and teaching facilities, “putting the Wits surgical training programme on par with the best in the world”.

According to Wits head of surgical gastroenterology and clinical head of surgery at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, Prof Damon Bizos, the university trains more doctors, surgeons, specialists, and sub-specialist than any other university in Southern Africa.

He said the new lab will put the university even further ahead with the training of more surgeons in a “state-of-the-art environment, with the best equipment available”.

“We need to replenish these specialised skills and replicate them in adequate measure to deliver essential services to South Africans and Africans,” he said.

According to Wits vice-chancellor Prof Zeblon Vilakazi the replenishing of SA’s pool of surgeons is critical for maintaining service standards in both private and public hospitals.

He said the risk of losing highly skilled and specialised surgeons to other countries is lessened by offering doctors the opportunity to undergo highly specialised training locally, rather than abroad.

According to Patel, the lab will cater for the interdisciplinary training needs of surgical disciplines including general surgery, orthopaedics, gynaecology, ear, nose and throat, and cardiothoracic, urology, maxillofacial, ophthalmological, neuro, and plastic surgery.

It will include the training of specialists, doctors, nurses and other allied health practitioners.

The lab will offer different courses at different skill levels.

“The basic and intermediate courses will help inculcate basic surgical competence and skills development, while advanced courses will ensure that experienced practitioners remain at the forefront of advances in the field,” said Bizos. “We will offer in-house training as well as industry-sponsored surgical training courses and symposia,” he said.

According to Patel, the laboratory includes a large “wet lab” with eight stations, laparoscopic towers and endoscopy including upper endoscopy and colonoscopy, and the availability of facilities for training on cadavers.

It also includes lead-lined walls to accommodate X-ray imaging, a lecture room for 35 participants, and full audiovisual and videoconferencing facilities.

Wits head of the department of surgery Prof Martin Smith said a number of donors contributed to help the university build the new facility.

“This multidisciplinary unit offers the most modern information technology in a versatile environment. It uses the latest skills training methodologies to ensure that when these surgeons and others provide care to patients, their advanced skills are appropriate and safe, ensuring the best outcomes for the patients and communities. It further offers us an opportunity to engage in research into new technologies and training methods,” said Smith.

On September 29 Wits hosted the sod-turning event for its new R70m Bara Burns Unit, an addition to the existing burns unit at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto, thanks to a donation by the Roy McAlpine Foundation.

According to the university, more than 250 adults and 500 children with severe burns are admitted to the burns unit, established in 1991, at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital annually, not only from Gauteng, but also from around Africa.

The burns unit is the only public health, specialised burns unit in Gauteng that serves all patients who cannot afford treatment at private facilities, but the need for additional capacity has drastically increased.

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