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Tshemba Foundation ushering in a new era of medical volunteering serving rural communities

As a way to improve access to healthcare in under-resourced communities in rural South Africa, the Tshemba Foundation is ushering in a new era of medical volunteering. Based in a purpose-built Volunteer Centre near Hoedspruit and currently serving communities in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the initiative is built around a rigorously managed healthcare delivery system - based on volunteer input augmenting local capacity through service training and skills development.

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Opened in 2017, the flagship initiative of Tshemba Foundation’s vision for fair and equal healthcare in rural communities is the Tshemba Volunteer Programme. Offering medical professionals the dual benefit of finding a base where they can treat, teach and learn and also experience a beautiful corner of authentic Africa, the Tshemba Volunteer programme accepts both short-term and long-term volunteering.

Volunteers will work predominantly at Tintswalo Hospital – a Department of Health district hospital in Acornhoek which serves around 300,000 people, the majority of whom live in poverty. Many of the 10,000 patients visiting the hospital each month present with life threatening diseases such as malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and diabetes and hypertension in epidemic proportions. The hospital is also a Regional Centre for Psychiatric Care and is additionally responsible for placing doctors at 14 local clinics. Tshemba Volunteer programme has already placed five volunteer medical professionals at this hospital with at least eight more expected during the second half of 2017.

Medical volunteers are also being placed at the Tshemba Women’s Clinic at Hlokomela - a pioneering healthcare infrastructure project of the Tshemba Foundation. Opened on 7 July this year, the clinic is dedicated to promoting women’s health, and is the only one of its kind in the region. Alongside funding the building of the clinic and placing medical volunteers at the institution, Tshemba Foundation was instrumental in bringing two projects to the clinic - a Breast Cancer Prevention Project, out of Johns Hopkins Hospital (Baltimore), and a Cervical Cancer Prevention Project, out of Mt Sinai Hospital (New York).

A beautiful and tranquil base attracting world-class medical practitioners


Tshemba Volunteer Centre is situated in Moditlo Private Game Reserve, home to many of Africa's rarest and most protected species. The newly built Volunteer Centre provides a beautiful, tranquil base for volunteer medical professionals who come from across the world, and all corners of South Africa. It provides a place where like-minded healthcare providers can relax after an intense day of work - to exchange ideas, create healthcare solutions for the challenges they might have experienced during their work and generally connect with peers from many different places.

Tshemba Foundation’s unique approach to volunteering has the long-term aim of attracting world-class medical practitioners to a region that is in urgent need of their professional skills, expertise and knowledge.

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Unable to turn a blind eye to inequality of healthcare


It was founded in 2014 by Neil Tabatznik with Godfrey Phillips. Now living in Canada, South African-born Tabatznik practiced as a Barrister at the Bar of England and Wales for 19 years and was formerly director of the Arrow Group of Companies. He is currently chairman of Blue Ice Capital and Blue Ice Pictures, founder of the Blue Ice Hot Docs Documentary Film Fund, and has served as executive producer on the films Shake Hands with the Devil, The Bang Bang Club, Fanie Fourie's Lobola, Romeo and Juliet and Nebraska.

Phillips worked at Young & Rubicam in New York for nearly 20 years, specialising in strategic development. He has a PH.d in Social Policy from Bryn Mawr College (USA), with his dissertation focusing on the medical division of labour and the increasing growth of new professionals (Physician Assistants). Phillips now serves as COO at Tshemba Foundation, based out of the Tshemba Volunteer Centre.

“The inequality of healthcare between the urban and rural areas is so extreme that it was just not possible to turn a blind eye to it when I first witnessed it during a visit to the area,” explains Tabatznik. “It was heartbreakingly clear to me that the disparity of treatment means that the difference between living and dying is based solely on where an individual lives. To me, this is utterly unconscionable. Through the Tshemba Foundation we’re doing whatever we can, with our limited resources, to improve the quality of healthcare for the hundreds of thousands of the rural population that we serve”.

“Being on the ground in Hoedspruit, I am constantly reminded about the value of volunteering in the community in general - and for Tshemba specifically,” adds Phillips. “There is a palpable skills shortage and people are so appreciative of others who are prepared to give up their time to enhance what they have. This is a very special place with great needs. I have no doubt that everyone who volunteers with Tshemba will leave with an enriched experience. I know I feel like that every day.”

A long sought for light at the end of the rural healthcare tunnel


Tshemba Foundation’s medical arm is being run by Chief Medical Officer, Professor John Gear, with the support of Family Physician Dr David Rogers - both highly-experienced medical professionals with a deep and intimate understanding of the medical needs of the communities served by Hlokomela Clinic, Tintswalo Hospital and the region’s other clinics. In this way, Tshemba Foundation will play a meaningful role in supporting rural healthcare through a responsive and carefully planned volunteer programme.

“Having been closely and then loosely associated with Tintswalo Hospital since 1979, I can truly say that this volunteer programme is the long sought for light at the end of a tunnel that has the potential to radically improve the quality of care on offer,” comments Gear. “This is not because of poor doctoring locally but because those who have chosen to give their professional lives are strained to breaking point, are starved of outside input and support, and are frustrated by their inability to deliver the sort of service their patients hope for and expect.”

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A message to volunteers


In a message to volunteers, Gear added: “Volunteers joining the programme are likely to be taken aback at the lack of equipment, the crowded wards and Out Patient Department and the range of clinical challenges that confront them. However, we are on hand to guide and support volunteers whenever needed. Be passionate, be caring and you will make a difference. Each small individual contribution will help us collectively to build a better, more caring system. It is hoped that the sense of reward and satisfaction will make your volunteering experience thoroughly worthwhile and hopefully lead to follow-up visits in the future.”.

Tshemba works closely in partnership with the Department of Health and healthcare institutions in the rural communities of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Tshemba’s mission to benefit the overall healthcare of the region’s communities while providing volunteers with a stimulating and challenging learning environment - and it is already having a life-changing impact on those medical practitioners who want to make a difference.

“From the moment I arrived at Tintswalo Hospital, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous need of the local community - making it both a very challenging and extremely rewarding place to work,” says Dr Kathleen Meyer, a UK-based doctor who spent 12 weeks volunteering in 2017. “After a busy day, returning home to the Volunteer Centre makes the stress of the day fade away. Everyone at Tshemba is incredibly accommodating, making my stay wonderful.”

Medical practitioners can find out more and make contact by visiting the Tshemba Foundation website.
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