Stellenbosch University: Three FMHS researcher-clinicians benefit from Discovery Awards

Three clinicians and researchers from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences have received prestigious Discovery Foundation Awards for their work ranging from reproductive health to gynaecological oncology and rural mental health.

They are Dr Lebogang Phahladira, Dr Haleema Addae and Dr Ramokone Mogotlane.

All three have expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to focus wholeheartedly on their work, with a view to contributing to community health in their respective fields.

Dr Lebogang Phahladira

Phahladira, a senior lecturer and researcher in the Department of Psychiatry, said he was excited about receiving the “highly competitive” award which will see him working as a Specialist Psychiatrist at the Dr Harry Surtie Hospital in Upington. He is hosted by Dr Bradley Wentzel from the Ukwanda Centre for Rural Health.

Phahladira has a PhD in the areas of schizophrenia and psychosis from SU and is attached to Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital. His research has been focused on the treatment of young people with schizophrenia in the early phases of illness in resource-constrained settings.

“This funding will be used to develop capacity for people looking after patients with mental illness in Upington and the far-reaching areas of the Northern Cape, including community health workers, mental health nurses and doctors working in terms of training.

“We hope to build sustainable capacity for people in the Northern Cape to look after and treat people with mental illness,” he said. “In the long run we think that in addition to capacity development, we will also see improved clinical outcomes, including better overall treatment of patients, especially vulnerable people with serious mental illness.

“What keeps me awake at night is how to improve the quality of life for people with mental illness, how to integrate them into society and to ensure that the healthcare system is more adaptable to their needs. We will ensure training takes place and we hope to put systems in place to make sure people access care in resource-constrained settings like Upington and further afield in Northern Cape.

“My hope is that the work we do will become a model of excellence for resource-constrained settings.”

Phahladira said the situation for mentally unwell people in the Northern Cape is currently dire. “The people of Upington have to travel for hours to Kimberley for psychiatric care as there are no specialist psychiatry services in that area. Only one mental health nurse serves that area with no dedicated doctors treating patients with mental illness. The hospital has no facilities to manage the mentally ill patients. We are truly indebted to Discovery for helping us to lay a foundation for the future.”

Phahladira, who grew up on a farm in Limpopo and went to a remote rural school before attending medical school, has been at SU for ten years, lecturing and doing ongoing research into schizophrenia as well as patient care.

“I’ve always found schizophrenia to be a fascinating illness. My passion is to make it better for people with mental illness. I hope to continue research into schizophrenia and psychosis and to develop new models of teaching medical students.

“I believe we should be moving from the ‘ivory towers’ and teaching closer to where people live. If we decentralise teaching we will improve outcomes for poor and vulnerable rural patients. South Africa will be a better place if this happens.”

Dr Ramokone Mogotlane

Mogotlane, who believes there is a shortage of specialists who can address the “very real problem” of infertility, said she is “over the moon” about her award which enables her to pursue training in her sub-speciality in reproductive medicine and endocrinology.

She was studying through the University of Free State when she was initially given the award and transferred to SU with the award. She is hosted by Prof Thabo Matsaseng in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

Mogotlane was previously working full time as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in private practice in Tshwane but will now focus on her studies and training full time.

“I am so excited that I got this award on merit,” she said.

Mogotlane, who grew up in both Umlazi, near Durban and Soshanguve, outside Pretoria, has a strong medical background: her grandmother was a midwife in Limpopo and both her parents were professors in medicine.

She studied medicine at the Medical University of South Africa (today known as Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University) and specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Pretoria before taking up a fellowship in reproductive medicine at the University of the Free State.

Mogotlane said she believes that infertility is a big problem amongst both males and females in South Africa. “There is a real need for awareness about how to take care of one’s fertility. There’s also a need for access to care for infertility services. It is a specialised field so it is difficult to access care in public hospitals as it requires funding that is not in the public sector.”

Mogotlane stressed that people must become more aware of the potential causes of infertility and how to overcome these. “Women are losing their fertility because they are busy pursuing careers. Lifestyle is another important factor. People need to be aware that obesity affects fertility in both men and women, as do smoking and excess alcohol.”

One of her aims is to create awareness of how to stop the avoidable causes of infertility. She also has a passion for oncofertility (the field combining oncology and reproductive endocrinology). She hopes to make a lasting difference in reproductive medicine.

Dr Haleema Addae

Addae, who is doing her sub-specialty in Gynaecological Oncology at Tygerberg Hospital and is being hosted by Dr Haynes van der Merwe from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, voiced her delight and excitement at the award.

She said that, without these kind of awards, “many people would not be able to sub-specialise”.

“Mine is a completely unfunded post, so this award means I can do my sub-specialisation without worrying about money. I don’t have the distraction of having to think about trying to find part-time work. I can focus on my study and the research that goes with it. It is a real blessing.”

Addae was born in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape and grew up in both the Eastern Cape and Johannesburg. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town and did her community service in a rural hospital in the Eastern Cape, before specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology at UCT.

Prior to moving to Tygerberg to do the sub-speciality, Addae was working as a generalist at the Thelle Mogoerane Regional Hospital in Johannesburg, where she realised that there was a dire need for gynaecological oncologists in South Africa. “A lot of patients present late with cancers. They should be operated on by a qualified gynaecological oncologist but, because of the shortage, they are being operated on by the wrong people. I am so happy that ultimately I will be able to contribute towards filling that gap as a gynaecological oncologist and contributing to lightening the burden of disease we have in the country, especially cervical cancer.”