The government in 2012 established two additional public universities, the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Sunyani in the Brong-Ahafo Region and the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS) in Ho, in the Volta Region.The vision of the university is to become a centre of excellence as a research and practically- oriented health educational institution dedicated to community services. The university held its first congregation a few days ago for laboratory technicians, physician assistants, midwives etc who graduated from the university with bachelor degrees. The four-year-tenure of office of the first Vice Chancellor, Professor Fred Newton Binka, came to an end on July 31. He is succeeded by Prof. John Owusu Gyapong, the Pro VC of the University of Ghana in Charge of Office of Research, Innovations and Development.
The Ghanaian Times caught up with Prof. Binka,a distinguished public health physician, on his last day in office as the VC at the main campus of the University at Sokode-Lokoe on Friday. He speaks on the development of the UHAS, the successes chalked, challenges facing the university and future plans.
Ques: There were speculations in some sections of the media about the survival of the university when it was established; it was mockingly referred to as “university under trees,” “Ho Legon,” “university hayan” apparently because of inadequate infrastructure, four years on, how far is the university?
Ans: (laughs) The University is now on a very firm footing. We have established six out of the eight schools envisaged. Unfortunately, our attempt to establish one of the institutes…Institute of Health Research was aborted by our own Parliament. The Ebola vaccine trial was supposed to be the foundation of the Institute but that is not completely dead; we still have the equipment, the incoming VC will definitely be very much interested in taking it up. Other institutes envisaged are the Institute of Traditional and Alternate Medicine and Institute of Medical Education.
We have been very lucky that the university had a good plan. You will recall the late President J.E.A. Mills set up a 27-member team headed by Prof. Samuel Kofi Sefah-Dedeh, to work towards the establishment of the universities. I came here having had the opportunity to be the chair of the sub-committee on the UHAS and to debate with very knowledgeable people in university education and management. Out of these debates, we developed the blueprint for the UHAS and I happen to be the author.
What we developed was quite comprehensive, the university was to have focus on health and allied sciences with key schools and institutes. We have in place School of Basic and Biomedical Sciences. Although students are admitted to different schools, they start with this school, in the first year, to strengthen their knowledge in the basic sciences before they move to their schools. In future they are going to work together, as they study together, they will respect one another, build the bondage for smooth work after graduating. We have in place the School of Nursing and Midwifery, the School of Medicine which started with Physician Assistant Programme, who have just graduated, the medical students are in the second year, we are about to admit the third batch this August.
We have in place the School of Public Health at Hohoe, the School of Allied Health Sciences, the School of Pharmacy is based at Keta, we are incubating the students here in Ho, while we complete the infrastructure at Keta.
We are building up on our faculties to ensure quality of programmes. We are putting in efforts into our flagship Vocational Training Programme (VTP); every student has to do eight weeks of field work by working in the district hospitals and with the district health management teams, to expose them to practical work experiences. Some of them will eventually want to work in deprived areas. Currently, we have 2,000 students in the field, in all the districts in the Volta Region. Due to resources constraints, we are focusing on Volta Region to have a good theatre of operations.
The plan is to have our faculties located in the field. We have two of our medical school lecturers, Dr Ali, a Urologist in Kpando, Dr Kopisa, a Physiotherapist based at Dzedzo. Soon another one will go to Hohoe. They receive students and they help to improve the health systems there. The idea is to have our senior doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab. technicians etc., to work in the hospitals in the deprived areas to improve the quality of healthcare.
Ques: As a new university, there is the tendency for some end users to be skeptical about your graduates, how knowleagable, skillfull and ready are your products for the job market?
Ans: We just crossed the barrier; we had the first batch graduating in nursing, midwifery, physician assistant, and medical laboratory science. The potential for our people is high! with the kinds of programmes we are providing, the chance of getting a job is much higher than if one were to do administration. We are training them using all the standard methods in ensuring quality, in addition we are making sure that our people are practically-oriented through our VTP. We are encouraged by the number of people applying for our programmes. For instance, for the School of Medicine, we get close to 1,500 applying for admission, out of which half of the applicants are highly qualified with perfect scores, but we are able to admit between 40 and 50.We are encouraging them not to rely solely on government, but to team up and set up their own businesses. In fact, this is where Ghana is going!
With communicable diseases seeing a lower trend, the area of non-communicable disease is going to change the dynamics of healthcare. People suffering from such diseases will have to engage the health system throughout their lives. So we are there! the hypertension, the diabetes and other cardiovascular dIseases,HIV, chronic diseases are changing the mode, the number of physicians we have will never be enough to look after people. In addition, for non-communicable diseases, the “factory approach,” where today you go to the Polyclinic to see Dr “A,” tomorrow doctor “B” and the next day doctor “C” is not helpful. If you have diabetes, hypertension, it is better to see one doctor who will follow you all the time…he will see you frequently,make sure that your Blood Pressure (BP) is under control, and that will lengthen your life. One measurement of your BP reading very high today does not mean that you are going to die.
Ques: Prof., we have moved from the “university under trees” to “university in the bush,” your main campus is situated here in a serene environment of Sokode-Lokoe, but access to the university is still a challenge, the road network not well in place, this must be a source of worry to you?
Ans: (Smile) We started this concept of “university under trees”, I still have the cartoons as appeared in some sections of the media when the university was about to take off. Thankfully, the government and with support of the Chinese government, we now have the nucleus of university here in Ho, with first class and standard buildings, laboratories, auditorium and lecture halls comparable everywhere. A lot more is going on at Hohoe and Keta.
(Stern)Unfortunately, for us this is the problem of our civil and public servants, they have not followed up on the road, after the government awarded the
17kilometre road to the contractor, Ussuya. The bitumen surfacing of the road has been outstanding since 2012, the work was scheduled to have been completed in 2014.The contract should have been abrogated long ago, we have to see action taken against people who shirk their responsibilities. Imagine if 17 kilometres of road is completed (tarred), how do you think this place will look like? Yes, it is a big frustration! but some development is taking place with the dualisation of the Sokode-Ho road which will pass through our school. We are now left with this contractor to do the internal roads. For instance we have a car park, but there is no road to the place.
I hope with the prompting of the President in his recent speech on our maiden congregation, the Ghana Highways Authority will do us a favour by making sure that they get a qualified contractor who is willing to do this work.
Ques: The Board chair at your maiden congregation made an appeal for special funding for the university to prevent it from what he described as “Kwashiorkor” resulting from “financial malnutrition,” could you dilate further?
Ans: In fact, the planning committee that set up the university recommended for the establishment of an Endowment Fund for the university with the government providing GH¢500 million as seed money. We have started with it, the staff have contributed GH¢20,000, we are exploring other sources of revenue generation like the university cloth that I am wearing and sale of other memorabilia, so that the profit will be lodged into the fund. We will launch it next year, thereafter, we will go out aggressively to raise money from our partners, we hope that the government will play its part by providing the seed money. The concern of the board chair was that as a new university, it has peculiar needs, which require special attention for smooth take off; it will not be useful to put it in the mainstream budgetary allocations like other established institutions.
Ques: The health sector is bedeviled with challenges, doctor and nurse population ratio is not up to WHO standard, infant and maternal mortality still high, doctors are asking for their pound of flesh, nurses are picketing at the Ministry of Health for postings, what are we not doing right in the sector?
Ans: Health issues are expensive; they do not come cheap. If we do not invest enough resource at the national level there will always be a problem, once services are rendered someone has to pay for it… I have always taken a swipe at the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS).Though it is a perfect scheme, the quantum of money we are generating for the fund is incapable of providing the services to cover everybody. This is the source of the frustration, bills are not being paid for months, the hospital authorities cannot replenish, gradually the quality of care deteriorates, once that happens, the highly trained people will move on because the frustrations get too much. Highly trained people are highly mobile! why will one want to be a doctor only to prescribe drugs for people to go and buy and get quality? how will you know they are taking the medications? If we do not revise the scheme, we will see further deterioration in the care. If I were in charge, I will say that NHIS should cover the 10 commonest cause of death in the country so that people will take additional insurance to cover other things. So we will say we do not want our people to die of malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, respiratory diseases, wounds, scabies and road traffic accidents. As we solve the problems of the poor, some of these diseases will go off the lists …the money we have can now take us far. I hope the Dr. Chris Atim team that was asked to review the scheme…I have not seen the report but I hope they came up with some suggestions.
Ques: What is your message to the university community as they welcome the new VC?
Ans: The prospects are bright! we have to maintain the quality, our staff are beginning to settle down, our research programmes are seriously picking up, our VTP is bringing in a lot of stakeholders, the people of the region are very happy and will fight to protect the university. This is the time to consolidate and move on to the next stage, where we will improve upon our faculty base. Thankfully to God, we have been granted permission to recruit 300 faculty staff, so we can bring in more senior people to be able to start our graduate programmes and build the next generation of faculties, improve our research and attract more grants. We still have to lobby government and the Ministry of Education to find partners to help with more lecture rooms and other facilities. We also need to firm up agreement with the private sector to Build, Operate and Transfer.
Ques: What do you want to see the university to be like after you?
Ans: I want to see the place growing with lot of academic activities, I want to see by the next two to three years, the student population triple to about six to eight thousand, post-graduate programmes are running, research grants are coming in and the VTP is on steady ground with good interaction between the university and the communities and that the communities will see clearly that we are here to address their needs. Once this is done, we shall see the training of the next generation of Ghanaian health workers.
Ques: What will you be doing after your exit as VC?
Ans:(laugh). If I tell you, you will not believe it, I want to build a kitchen called Fred’s Kitchen at Kokrobitey in the Ga South Municipality, very soon you will see the signpost. I want to change the level of stress and the type of stress I am currently going through.
Obviously, I will also be doing some consulting work. The WHO has engaged me to coordinate emergency responses to artemesinim resistance at the Mekong Valley in Cambodia and to work on a malaria elimination programme for the country.
Ques: You had been in the forefront in malaria prevention and control in the country, you are fondly remembered for the bed net study as the Director of the Navrongo Health Research Centre in the 90s, that gave birth to the policy of insecticide treated bednet use, what is the malaria situation in the country?
Ans: Mortality and morbidity cases have considerably gone down, we are nearing elimination, we can easily get over it, we now understand the epidemiology of the disease better; we have the tools. We need to step up efforts, if we increased insecticide bednet coverage, mortality will further go down, we need to ensure that every child sleeps under insecticide treated bednet.