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James Cook University’s Zambian class of 2018

Fri, 8 Jun 2018
James Cook University’s Zambian class of 2018

Low rainfall is not a commonly accepted excuse for late assignments – unless you are a Zambian pharmacist tackling a Master’s degree online with James Cook University.

A dozen pharmacists throughout Zambia recently completed their Master of Pharmaceutical Public Health course with JCU, despite intermittent Internet access and other infrastructure issues – not to mention the weather.

“At the time, they were going through quite a severe drought and as much of the power in Zambia is hydro-electricity, they had a lot of power outages,” said Associate Professor, Pharmacy, Ian Heslop, who visited the country twice to deliver ‘intensives’ (face-to-face teaching) to students during the two-year course.

“After experiencing it yourself, you suddenly realise, ‘no wonder we’ve been having trouble getting assignments off some of these students’.”

The Masters course for the Zambian pharmacists, who hold senior positions in their country’s health system, was funded by the European Union (EU), as part of their multi-million dollar Health Systems Strengthening Project (HSSP) in Zambia.

“One of the main aims of the HSSP is to strengthen the supply chain for medicines around the country, so that medicines get from the central warehouses in Lusaka out to all the individual clinics in remote areas,” Dr Heslop said.

“Improving the quality of medicines coming into the country is also a primary goal. Some developing countries have major problems with counterfeit medicines and other medicines of poor quality.”

JCU Adjunct Associate Professor Murray Bailey, who helped to develop the Master of Pharmaceutical Public Health program and now works as a contractor with agencies like the United Nations and EU, first floated the idea of Zambian participation in the Masters course with the country’s chief pharmacist several years ago, according to Dr Heslop. The initiative was included in the HSSP funding proposal and subsequently given the nod by the EU.

Dr Heslop and JCU colleague Professor Beverley Glass visited the Zambian capital, Lusaka, on a fact finding mission in late 2015, before the students commenced study in 2016.

“We wanted to find out how the health system works, so we could tailor some of the course subjects to better meet their needs,” he said.

“It resembles the state health systems here in Australia, but there are also various church-run healthcare providers as well, because it is a very Christian country. Mission hospitals play a big role in supplying some health services.”

Zambia’s infrastructure problems had a direct impact on how the JCU course was delivered to the students.

“We had to be careful how we gave resources to the students, because if we had a really fancy online model, students in some remote areas wouldn’t have been able to access it, because the Internet wasn’t good enough. So we used a combination of book-type, physical resources, as well as some online resources.

“We also contacted the students regularly via email, because the email system is quite good, but we didn’t do a lot of online tutorials, because they just didn’t have the band width to do that.”

JCU teaching staff trekked to Zambia to deliver ‘intensives’ to the students at two key points in the course, in November 2016 and July 2017. On each occasion, they spent four to five days with the students at a teaching venue near Lusaka.

The students covered a range of subjects, including pharmacovigilance (PV), and pharmaceutical quality and regulation.

“Pharmacovigilance is about the post-marketing surveillance and monitoring of medication problems,” Dr Heslop said.

“After the Thalidomide disaster of the 1960s, most countries and bodies like the UK, EU and World Health Organization have systems for the monitoring of adverse drug reactions. PV focuses on the development of these systems and drug regulation and licensing within countries.”

Pharmaceutical officer in charge of Zambia’s North Western Province, Catherine Chidumayo, said the Master’s course had equipped her with valuable research skills.

“I am now able to collect data and analyse problems,” she said. “I can quantify the extent of irrational antibiotic use. I am currently doing a study to determine the prevalence of adverse drug reactions with contraceptive use in my province.”

Dr Heslop believes that he and the other JCU staff involved in delivering the course had also learned a lot from the experience.

“We learnt how to deal with some of the difficulties involved in providing an online course, while we are in Australia and the students are in a developing country,” he said. “Hopefully, if we get another cohort of students from a developing country – and we are looking at a few options – then we will be even better prepared.”

Dr Heslop is about to head to Lusaka again – to present the 12 students with their certificates at a special graduation ceremony on 12 June 2018.