Non-physician clinicians in rural Africa: lessons from the Medical Licentiate programme in Zambia.

BACKGROUND: Most sub-Saharan African countries struggle to make safe surgery accessible to rural populations due to a shortage of qualified surgeons and the unlikelihood of retaining them in district hospitals. In 2002, Zambia introduced a new cadre of non-physician clinicians (NPCs), medical licentiates (MLs), trained initially to the level of a higher diploma and from 2013 up to a BSc degree. MLs have advanced clinical skills, including training in elective and emergency surgery, designed as a sustainable response to the surgical needs of rural populations.

METHODS: This qualitative study aimed to describe the role, contributions and challenges surgically active MLs have experienced. Based on 43 interviewees, it includes the perspective of MLs, their district hospital colleagues-medical officers (MOs), nurses and managers; and surgeon-supervisors and national stakeholders.

RESULTS: In Zambia, MLs play a crucial role in delivering surgical services at the district level, providing emergency surgery and often increasing the range of elective surgical cases that would otherwise not be available for rural dwellers. They work hand in hand with MOs, often giving them informal surgical training and reducing the need for hospitals to refer surgical cases. However, MLs often face professional recognition problems and tensions around relationships with MOs that impact their ability to utilise their surgical skills.

CONCLUSIONS: The paper provides new evidence concerning the benefits of 'task shifting' and identifies challenges that need to be addressed if MLs are to be a sustainable response to the surgical needs of rural populations in Zambia. Policy lessons for other countries in the region that also use NPCs to deliver essential surgery include the need for career paths and opportunities, professional recognition, and suitable employment options for this important cadre of healthcare professionals.