Gulu – Forty new members last Saturday joined the country’s medical doctors club. They graduated during Gulu University’s fifth graduation on January 23.
The 40 are part of the 52 pioneer students of the public university’s Faculty of Medicine that started in 2004, two years after the inauguration of the university. Four were discontinued while eight have retakes.
They are also part of the 1,050 students who graduated in different disciplines. Prof. Emilio Ovuga, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, told Observer School that the faculty has 331 students. He estimates that the faculty will be graduating between 36 and 40 doctors annually.
Gulu becomes the third public university to train medical doctors after Makerere University and Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST).
An official at MUST told Observer School that the university produces between 60 and 75 doctors annually.
Makerere on the other hand produces between 80 and 100 doctors annually, according to an official of the Makerere School of Health Sciences. Indeed during last week’s graduation, Makerere graduated 95 medical students.
Makerere and Mbarara University’s figures perhaps show that Gulu has started off on a promising note. It produces half the number of doctors Makerere University produces, despite the latter being around for many decades.
Gulu University’s human medicine graduates will help reduce Uganda’s doctor-patient ratio which is currently estimated at 1: 24,000.
Dr. Paul Onek, the Gulu District Health Officer, welcomed the 40 new doctors, saying: “It is very good news, especially for our region where we have fewer doctors.”
His worry, however, is whether they can be retained or attracted to work in Gulu. He notes that graduates need decent accommodation “yet doctors in Gulu Hospital have no houses. We pay them to rent in town, which is expensive.”
Other facilities needed to attract doctors in rural areas, he says, are electricity, internet and a living wage. “That is what they always ask for,” he says.
Dr. Onek added that most graduates prefer to work with local NGOs which pay them better.
The 40 medical doctors are part of the 1,050 students who graduated at Gulu University in various disciplines on Saturday. Of these, 663 (63%) were male, while 387 (37%) were female.
The male domination was also reflected among medicine graduands, where only three females became doctors. Thirteen students were awarded master’s degrees (Business Administration, 11; and Arts in Public Administration and Management, two).
Other graduands bagged 106 postgraduate diplomas, 779 undergraduate degrees, 115 undergraduate diplomas and 37 undergraduate certificates. The graduation of 40 doctors is a triumph over many odds, like insufficient teaching space, lecturers and funds.
The Gulu University Dean, Faculty of Medicine, Prof. Emilio Ovuga, told Observer School that when the faculty started in 2004, its survival was in doubt. They had neither the buildings nor the money to run the faculty.
“Fortunately, there was a condemned building in the hospital (Gulu Regional Referral Hospital). It was previously a maternity ward but was dilapidated and wasn’t being used. So the university renovated it and it is the one housing us,” he said at his faculty office in Gulu.
Part of this building, he explained, now houses the faculty library, staffroom and lecture rooms. Some new buildings have been constructed to house other lecture rooms, a laboratory and a multimedia room.
The Italian and Ugandan governments, he revealed, provided the initial funding. Italy continues to support the university’s development endeavours, like purchase of equipment and chemicals.
A new building to house the faculty was opened during the graduation. Prof. Ovuga also says plans are underway to construct a new building that will house, among others, a Heart Clinic.
The faculty has also been struggling with human resource. Three of the senior lecturers it started with left soon after for further education “which in essence left us with no lecturers.”
They had to rely on part-time and honorary lecturers from Mbarara and Makerere universities, as well as Gulu, Lacor, Mulago and Mbarara hospitals.
Dons from foreign universities such as University of Manchester (UK), Aarhus University (Denmark), University of Naples (Italy), and Mark McMaster University (Canada) were also very helpful.
“They are real friends who appreciate our plight. We don’t pay them, it’s only in a few instances that we have given them accommodation and meals,” says Prof. Ovuga.
Even with a recruitment exercise, Ovuga says the response to their job adverts was poor.
“Only 13% of staff vacancies got filled. Presently, filled vacancies stand at 20%.”
The faculty now has 41 full-time lecturers that include one professor, three associate professors, one senior lecturer, 26 lecturers, and 10 teaching assistants. The faculty also has 27 honorary lecturers, 14 administrative staff and 10 technical staff.
Ovuga says that as part of their staff development programme to build self-reliance, ten of their lecturers are doing their master’s degrees in other universities, while two are doing PhDs at Gulu.
In the next academic year, 2010/ 2011, he says the faculty will also start teaching master’s degrees.
Prof. Ovuga cites indiscipline of some students as one of the challenges facing the faculty. Most of their students being government sponsored, he says, they have previously resorted to strikes and demonstrations, “holding the administration hostage” whenever government delays to send their allowances.
He also cites the location of their university away from Kampala as increasing their managerial costs. He, for instance, says most conferences take place in Kampala thus requiring them to spend more on transport.
“It’s a challenge because if we don’t travel we miss out.”
He adds that some parents were initially reluctant to send their students to Gulu University because of the armed conflict in the region.
He also cites the high cost of living in Gulu which he attributes to the influx of Sudanese traders and sale of foodstuffs to Sudan.
He says the Sudanese readily pay high prices which has increased the prices of most food items. The proliferation of NGOs in Gulu, he adds, has also increased rent in the area.
Some of these NGOs pay rent for a whole year while others pay in dollars which the university cannot afford to accommodate its lecturers.
He also blames “local politics” and the communal land ownership system in the area which he says has barred government and other private investors from investing in housing and real estate businesses.
Facilities at Gulu Hospital aren’t up to scratch.
“In a teaching hospital there should be beds and drugs all the time but it seems the Ministry of Health doesn’t always respond on time. Thus you have patients and nowhere to put them. Patients should not sleep on the floor,” he complains.
Despite the hurdles, Prof. Ovuga says they produce quality graduates “who will preserve life and not half-baked doctors who will kill people.” Part of the secret, he says is the hands-on training.
“During holidays, we send our students to work in hospitals in their home areas and we haven’t received adverse reports about their performance,” he concluded.