Why helping to bolster primary care services on the ground in Africa is a priority for Roche.

“I had a dream to work in oncology. This training programme not only turned my life around, but it has allowed me to have such a positive impact for patients with cancer.”

Gideon Asante, an Oncology Nurse Practitioner in Ghana, is talking about the impact of the scholarship for a three-year training programme that helped him to fulfil his dream of working with cancer patients. Gideon graduated in 2020 – with a special award due to his outstanding performance – and now works at a new oncology centre for cancer care at the Tamale Teaching Hospital, in the north of Ghana.

“The new oncology centre has made such a difference for cancer patients in this region, and I am happy to be able to make my own contribution,” says Gideon. “Without the scholarship, I would not have been able to achieve this, so I am very grateful to be in a position now where I can give my best for patients.”

Roche has sponsored a total of 36 Oncology Nurse scholarships at the Ghana College of Nurses and Midwives (GCNM) in Accra. It is just one example of Roche’s drive to help bolster essential primary care services in Africa. Primary care practitioners – such as family doctors and nurses – are the backbone of healthcare systems, acting as the vital first contact for patient care and coordinating services with other healthcare providers.

Nurses have a pivotal role to play in cancer care, supporting patients throughout their treatment journey. Having skilled oncology nurses in place can lead to reductions in patient mortality.1 However, oncology nursing has not been an established nursing subspecialty in most of Africa.2 In Ghana, although there is still a long way to go until there are adequate numbers of oncology nurses in place across the country, the impact of the scholarships is already being felt.

“The feedback we are receiving is that these nurses are already having a tremendous impact in terms of supporting patients, managing adverse events, help with adherence to treatment, and reducing the burden on doctors,” says Dr. Louisa Preko, Medical Director at Roche Ghana. “There are now five oncology centres all over Ghana with well-trained oncology nurses in place, so we are hopeful this will help to support better outcomes for many patients in the coming years.”

While healthcare infrastructures in Africa are undoubtedly improving, gaps and challenges remain, sometimes requiring out-of-the-box solutions.

In Kenya, for example, an extraordinary project is underway, which involves training people with visual or hearing impairment to examine and diagnose people with breast or cervical cancer. The project – a partnership between Roche and Amref – was inspired by a similar project implemented in Colombia, called Pink Offices, where women with visual impairment assist with breast cancer screening thanks to their heightened sense of touch.

“It is certainly different, but it really works,” says Jackie Wambua, Head of Government Affairs - East Africa, Roche. “Not only for the patients, who have a faster diagnosis in a more comfortable setting with another woman, but for the health workers themselves, who now have such a meaningful role in their community. It helps to show that disability does not mean inability, far from it.”

Jackie says her team faced “barrier after barrier” trying to implement such a unique health programme, but the partnership with Amref – a long-established and hugely reputable NGO – has helped to make the vision a reality. In the pilot phase, the initiative will train 100 community health workers, 30 of whom are visually impaired and 42 hearing impaired, with the remaining 28 having no impairment, for comparison purposes. They will work at 14 centres across Kenya, helping to improve diagnosis of breast and cervical cancer.

These kinds of partnerships are replicated all over Africa. The key is identifying areas of unmet need where Roche can support in a meaningful way that will make a real difference on the ground.

Staying in Kenya, Roche is supporting 124 student nurses with full scholarships at the Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) as part of the Beyond Zero initiative, a national programme with the overall goal of eliminating all preventable maternal and child deaths in Kenya by 2023. Many of the newly-trained nurses will work in rural parts of the country where people have limited access to healthcare services.

“The impact of this programme will be significant because in some areas where there are very few healthcare providers, these nurses will be providing the whole range of maternal care for expectant mothers and their babies,” says Jackie. “We hope this will contribute to the laudable aims of Beyond Zero and reduce the number of serious complications seen with pregnancy and childbirth.”

In the Ivory Coast meanwhile, Roche is supporting 8 lab technician students and 8 pathology students through their studies to increase the number of skilled practitioners in these essential areas.

In Malawi, in partnership with mothers2mothers, a Roche programme is helping to improve health, wellbeing, and developmental outcomes for HIV-positive, HIV-exposed, and other vulnerable young children of adolescent girls and young women in the Lilongwe District of the country.

Roche is also supporting mothers2mothers in Ghana, where a programme has begun implementing dedicated services for adolescents, including differentiated testing services, antiretroviral therapy linkages and follow up services, and viral load monitoring, with the aim of strengthening adolescent HIV service delivery.

One of the longest-running philanthropic programmes Roche has been involved in is the Phelophepa train in South Africa, the world’s first comprehensive primary healthcare facility on rail. From a single three-car train in 1994, Roche and Transnet (a freight logistics company) have expanded to three 19-coach trains by 2021. Phelophepa provides a range of healthcare services including dental, ophthalmological, psychological and general health, and more recently, has also provided thousands of COVID vaccinations. Since April 2021, over 21,000 people were vaccinated against COVID-16 and over 340,000 people were provided with primary healthcare services on the trains.

All of these projects have two things in common. Firstly, the commitment of outstanding local partner organisations, whose knowledge and passion gives these initiatives life. The second is the dedication of the brilliant students, healthcare professionals and volunteers on the ground who make these programmes a reality.

People like Gideon.

“I am very proud of what I have achieved, and my family and children are proud too,” he says. “It’s been a great opportunity and I hope many more are able to follow in my footsteps in the future.”

References

  1. Ohene Oti Naomi, de Villiers Martjie, Adejumo Prisca, Okumu Roselyne, Maliti Biemba, Elkateb Nagwa, Hammad Nazik (2021) Strengthening of oncology nursing education and training in Africa in the year of the nurse and midwife: addressing the challenges to improve cancer control in Africa ecancer 15 1209

  2. Boyle P, Ngoma T, and Sullivan R, et al (2015) The State of Oncology in Africa

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