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Doctors claim HPCSA frustrating their attempts to work in SA

Published May 10, 2022


A GROUP of doctors, who studied at overseas universities, and hoped to practise medicine in their motherland, have accused the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) of frustrating and hindering their path to the local medical fraternity.

Dr Kimira Rugnath and 93 others have lodged a class action lawsuit, two weeks ago, with the Pretoria High Court, against the HPCSA, the statutory body that regulates the country's health-care profession.

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The HPCSA was listed as the first respondent and the others are the Medical and Dental Professional Board (second respondent) and the Minister of Health.

All 94 doctors are affiliated with the South African Internationally Trained Health Professionals Association (SAITHPA), the organisation advancing their integration fight.

Two thorny issues in particular, formed the crux of the doctors’ court application.

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The first was the HPCSA’s rules, regulations and conditions which they deem “unnecessary” and “hindered” their attempts to register with the first two respondents.

Registration gives the doctors the opportunity to write the HPCSA’s board exams and if completed successfully, they become eligible to complete their internship, community service and practise in South Africa.

Board exams comprise of theoretical and practical segments.

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A requirement for registration is that the foreign universities, where applicants studied, must be listed in the World Directory of Medical Schools (WDMS) and their qualifications verified and authenticated by the US-based Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG).

The second respondent relies on ECFMG’s verification process to authenticate credentials of foreign qualified graduates, who plan to practise medicine in the country.

However, the affected doctors have also been asked to acquire accreditation letters from two international medical councils that recognise their qualifications.

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The applicants believe such requirements were “arbitrary, unreasonable and almost impossible to achieve”, as international medical councils refused to provide such letters because only the ECFMG had jurisdiction to accredit qualifications.

Their understanding was that if a university was listed on the WDMS and the resulting qualification from the institution was authenticated by the ECFMG, it was in alignment with the Health Practitioners Act of 1974, and was sufficient for a board exam sitting.

The doctors cited an instance where the HPCSA sent to SAITHPA a letter of recognition from the Sri Lankan Medical Council as an example of what was required. But the Sri Lankan Council confirmed to an applicant that the letter in question was “forged” and it does not provide such letters.

The applicants stated that sponsor notes were also attached to WDMS listings. The notes indicated countries that were willing to accept persons with qualifications from other universities, to write their board exams and practise in those respective countries.

Canada’s medical council is another that does not issue letters of recognition. They previously gave the HPCSA the assurance that their sponsor notes on the WDMS were authentic, but it was refused.

Australia was also against issuing letters and in the past directed the HPCSA to their website to ascertain eligibility of a medical school of a SAITHPA member, but the HPCSA refused to comply.

The second perplexing issue for the applicants were the HPCSA’s regulations on exams.

Each doctor is given three attempts at passing the board exam (theory and practical). An attempt constitutes one theory and possibly two practical exam sittings. When a graduate fails the practical aspect for the second time, that doctor is expected to start a next attempt, beginning with the theory exam.

A fourth attempt is possible, at the board’s discretion, after a one-year wait.

The applicants cannot understand why the entire board exam process had to be repeated, if they failed the practical exam for the second time.

They believe that such a decision was taken without “meaningful reason” and they are yet to receive an explanation.

Another HPCSA decision the doctors contested was the two respondents' failure to provide candidates with exam scripts and their marking memorandum, in spite of the request being made in accordance with the Promotion of Access to Information Act on an occasion.

SAITHPA asked the Office of the Public Protector to investigate the said matter, a year ago.

Despite the PP ruling that the information should be released, the respondents have not complied.

Therefore, the doctors applied to the court to have the various rules and regulations affecting them, reviewed and set aside.

Louise du Plessis, the attorney representing the doctors, said many parents who were still funding the graduates found the HPCSA’s actions frustrating, especially when the country was in dire need of doctors.

“It’s surprising that some of the affected doctors had received government scholarships. What the HPCSA is doing doesn't make sense,” said Du Plessis.

The HPCSA did not respond to questions.