Improving cancer care outcomes in Ghana through mentorship

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Published: 2 Jun 2019
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Dr Verna Vanderpuye - Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Accra, Ghana

Dr Verna Vanderpuye speaks to ecancer at the 2019 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting about receiving the International Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award.

She explains that the award aims to recognise individuals who help their young mentees to achieve. Dr Vanderpuye's explains how her work in Ghana has supported physicians, nurses, pharmacists and physicists with the aim of improving cancer care outcomes.

Dr Vanderpuye speaks about some of the challenges to cancer care and research across Africa, and how she hopes to see this change in the future.

She concludes by talking about her recent research on challenges to oncologists in the workplace, as well as the interesting results of a recent survey on Cancer Care on the Continent. 

I received an International Mentorship Award for women who conquer cancer. So they try and fish out women like us who try and make sure that our young mentees achieve. We have a succession plan and handover to our younger colleagues. So the award was just to commensurate what I do in terms of bringing up young oncology professionals in Africa, not just physicians but also nurses, pharmacists, physicists, just to improve the cancer care outcomes in the country, encourage them to pursue further studies and to make sure that they excel in their field.

Would you be able to tell us a little bit about the main challenges in cancer care and research in Ghana?

The problems we have, I’d like to talk about Africa in general, the problem is that we don’t have a lot of money to spend on research. The healthcare spending budgets are quite low so research really is a big problem. We usually go into partnerships and collaborations to get big research going but at the same time I believe that from just our small research that we can do at our basic levels we’ll be able to get a lot done to change the face of cancer care in Africa. Because what pertains in other countries does not really pertain to us because of our social culture, our poverty and all kinds of things, we might not be able to come up with the state of the art treatment but it’s important to manage with what we have, to make sure we are giving the patients the best.

When it comes to research we still try now to encourage our young physicians to have a research proposal in their examinations. That will probably go a long way to stimulate their interest in research but a lot more has to do with that because we are not taught research in our medical schools and that has to change. So, for example in oncology, everybody knows oncology is a lot of research so all our residents try and be on the ball to keep up with research and try to publish their own, just in their small little way because it’s different. But now other people are getting more attracted to Africa, to what we offer, so there’s a lot more interest in Africa and I think this will be on the bigger picture eventually.

Are there any current strategies that are trying to improve this?

With AORTIC, of which I’m the Secretary, there’s the BIG Cat awards with the NCI and they are trying to promote sponsorship for young investigators. I think this is the beginning of something big but there are also a lot of collaborators with East Africa, South Africa and other organisations coming in, ASCO is also helping with ASCO International, with all their awards for the young investigators. But I think we need to push more for Africa because I saw very few Africans up there on the stage yesterday. So there’s a lot to do with that and I think AORTIC should be able to lead the way with encouraging this.

Is there any research that you are personally working on at the moment?

We recently published a medical oncology workload for Africans and the results were striking that African oncologists are actually overloaded. They tend to be less satisfied with their jobs, they tend to see a huge number of patients per year and then also they have very low job satisfaction. This is something that should be looked inside seriously for policy to be able to attract more professionals into the oncology field. Because it speaks a lot of volume so it’s the beginning of something big coming out. Then secondly also I’m working on a survey which I published about three years ago about cancer care on the continent and there was a follow-up survey which is coming out soon which shows quite interesting results that cancer care on the continent for breast cancer particularly is getting so much better than it was even just within the span of three years. That is quite impressive and it’s even much better than we actually… because you know we have a very low response rate for Africa so it’s even better than I really thought and that’s very exciting to see that we are getting much better.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank ASCO for giving me this opportunity to highlight what we do in Africa because we are still a small continent but there’s a lot of potential out there. You should look out, watch this space, we are coming up.