African Medical Education Is Being Transformed by U.S. Program

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MEPI Principal Investigator, Nelson Sewankambo, MD, leads a discussion with a group of medical students at Makerere University. Photo by Richard Lord for Fogarty/NIH.

Medical education in sub-Saharan Africa is being revitalized and expanded through a U.S.-funded effort that is dramatically increasing enrollment, broadening curricula, upgrading Internet access, and providing cutting-edge skills labs and other technologies.

In the first substantial publication by participants of the $130 million Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI), more than 225 authors detailed progress being made at the African institutions. Their reports were published this month in a supplement to the journal Academic Medicine.1

International Education Innovation

Begun in 2010, MEPI is funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the National Institutes of Health, and is co­administered by NIH’s Fogarty International Center and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“MEPI is a major venture in international educational innovation that has generated new thinking, energy and optimism in the field of medical education in Africa,” the program partners write in a foreword article to the supplement.

The 32 articles include case studies of national strategies to increase numbers of doctors and health professionals trained; educational innovations such as e-learning and regional training sites; research capacity development, and partnerships that leverage advances across the MEPI network.

MEPI participants provided details of accomplishments made through the program, including:

  • In Zimbabwe, medical student and postgraduate enrollment have both nearly doubled, from 260 in 2010 to 513 in 2013, and the Ministry of Higher Education has committed additional financial support to sustain the progress.
  • A decentralized training network of 14 regional hospitals has been established in Kenya, and has provided instruction for more than 300 medical, nursing, dental and pharmacy students.
  • Internal medicine (IM) physicians were in short supply in Mozambique, so salary supplements, Internet access, and notebook computers were offered to encourage  recruitment, resulting in an increase in IM residents from 10 before MEPI to 75 in 2012.
  • Fourteen new master’s level programs were begun in Zambia, including physiological sciences, pharmacology, anatomy, pathology, microbiology and nursing.
  • A virtual microscopy system was introduced in Zambia, containing 4,000 electronic images, which increased student access and is more cost-effective than optical microscopy using glass slides.
  • A research administration office was created in Ethiopia to assist faculty in grant writing and management, and 18 faculty members were supported to present their research at international conferences.

Global Health Experts Comment

The supplement on MEPI progress also includes commentaries from global health experts such as former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby, MD, MEPI Coordinating Center principal investigator Francis G. Omaswa, MD,  and Fogarty International Center Director Roger I. Glass, MD.

The critical shortage of physicians, researchers and health-care workers across sub-Saharan Africa spurred ­MEPI’s creation. While the region suffers 25% of the global burden of disease, it has only 3% of the world’s health-care workers, according to the World Health Organization. The impact of HIV/AIDS created an urgent need to increase capacity, wrote Dr. Goosby and his coauthor Deborah von Zinkernagel, former PEPFAR Deputy. “Although concerns arose that resources were being diverted from “services,” it was evident to PEPFAR leadership that the ongoing and expanding needs of the HIV-infected community could not be successfully sustained without increasing the number of trained health professionals,” they added.

By awarding the grants directly to African institutions, MEPI is cultivating sustainable local leadership, Omaswa maintained. “For Africa to accelerate the speed of the ongoing transformation, it is necessary for Africans to step up and take ownership and responsibility for what happens in their own backyards,” he said.

Research is embedded in curricula developed through MEPI, to expand local capacity that will drive innovation. African scientists have already contributed to many “game-changing” HIV-related advances such as development of rapid diagnostics for detecting and monitoring HIV infections, noted Dr. Glass and his Fogarty coauthors. “The research perspective provided to students and faculty, the ability to raise and answer questions, and the idea that medical knowledge and practice are continually changing are being supported by MEPI sites and will hopefully endure long after the program ends,” they continued.

Second Phase of Investment in Planning Stage

Initially conceived as a 5-year program, MEPI funders and participants are now developing plans for a second phase of investment in Africa’s medical education.

Fogarty, the international component of the NIH, addresses global health challenges through innovative and collaborative research and training programs and supports and advances the NIH mission through international partnerships. For more information, visit: ■

Disclosure: Funding and support for this work came from the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator in the State Department and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and are administered by both the NIH Fogarty International Center and the HIV/AIDS Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration in the Department of Health and Human Services.


1. Academic Medicine: Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges 89(suppl 8):s1-s116, August 2014.