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The role of women health professionals in DR screening and treatment in Khayelitsha-South Africa

Published: 10.03.2024
Abraham Opare Project Manager
Community Eye Health Institute of the University of Cape Town, Orbis International
Ayisha Diop Associate Director, Program Managment,
Orbis International
Doris Macharia Senior Vice President of Global Programs
Orbis International

South Africa has one of the highest prevalence of diabetes in sub-Sharan Africa. An estimated 4 234 000 people in South Africa are living with diabetes, and likely to increase to more than 5 million by 2030. In the community of Khayelitsha, where the prevalence of diabetes casts a looming shadow over the population, a beacon of hope shines through an innovative project aimed at combating the devastating effects of diabetic retinopathy (DR); a complication of diabetes that can lead to vison loss and blindness. At the heart of this endeavor lies a profound commitment to gender equity and access in healthcare provision, particularly in diabetes care and DR screening and treatment.

In a landscape often marked by disparities and challenges, the strides made in Khayelitsha stand as a testament to the transformative power of empowering women health professionals. Through collaborative efforts spearheaded by Orbis International, the World Diabetes Foundation, and the Western Cape Department of Health, a comprehensive approach to Diabetes care and DR management has been instituted, with a focus on elevating the role of women in healthcare delivery.

Central to the project’s success is the deliberate inclusion of women at every level of implementation. From the skilled ophthalmologist leading the charge in providing laser treatment for DR at the district hospital to the cadre of dedicated DR screeners stationed across primary health facilities. Women are leading and driving progress, catalyzing much needed change.
The decision to prioritize the training of women as DR screeners was not without its challenges. However, by fostering dialogue and championing the importance of gender equity in healthcare, barriers were overcome, paving the way for a more inclusive and effective approach to Diabetes care and DR management. As a result, 75% of the personnel who currently provide DR screening services are women, and in the second half of 2023, the number of community members being screened for DR increased by more than 10 times.

The impact of this commitment extends far beyond the confines of healthcare facilities. By actively engaging with the community and providing tangible opportunities for women to thrive in healthcare careers, the project has sparked a ripple effect of empowerment and inspiration. In fact, several young women have already reached out for guidance and have expressed interests in pursuing careers in eye care. Young women like Thabile, who overcame adversity to complete her training as a DR screener, serve as shining examples of resilience and determination.

Thabile’s poignant words, “I will forever be grateful to ORBIS for this opportunity to serve my community,” encapsulate the essence of the project’s mission. It is not merely about providing medical care; it is about empowering individuals to become agents of change within their communities, irrespective of gender or circumstance.

As we reflect on the progress made in Khayelitsha, it is evident that the role of women health professionals in Diabetes care and DR screening and treatment is not just desirable but indispensable. Their unique perspectives, empathy, and unwavering dedication enrich the fabric of healthcare delivery, fostering a culture of inclusivity and excellence.

Moving forward, it is imperative that we continue to champion gender equity in healthcare, not only in Khayelitsha and in South Africa, but across the globe. By harnessing the full potential of women health professionals, we can forge a future where access to quality healthcare knows no bounds, and every individual has the opportunity to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.