Fri | Dec 9, 2016

Degrees in limbo

Published:Monday | February 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

MOH policy change halts health students' internships

Ryon Jones, Staff Reporter

Dozens of environmental health students in the final phase of their four-year programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) are in danger of not graduating in November or receiving their certification. This is because of a disagreement between the institution and the Ministry of Health about how their mandatory internship will be funded.

The students, who have already paid for the 14-credit internship programme, which was to commence on January 12 and run until the end of July, are now antsy.

"The wait and uncertainty for the commencement of our internship programme is getting ridiculous," one student told The Gleaner. "We pay per semester, so this semester is already paid for. An internship is 14 credits, so we paid a total of $132,800. We need some answers ASAP. Internship should have started on the 12th of January and, up until now, we are still sitting at home even though we have paid our tuition fees. This is utter slackness!"

But when contacted, head of the School of Public Health and Health Technology, Professor Winston Davidson, said UTech is not to be blamed for the uncertainty surrounding when the students will be able to commence their internship.

Davidson said the concerns relate to a new policy introduced by the Ministry of Health, which sees the ministry no longer paying the students' stipends and, instead, requiring the university to pay for the students to undertake their internship.

"Now, that has caused some fundamental problems which presently seem to be on the verge of irreconcilable," Davidson told The Gleaner.

"First of all, the students have an agreement with the university for the cost of the four-year programme of the training, which includes the internship period. It means that if the Government ceases to pay this particular portion of the engagement of the students in preparation for professional certification, it simply means that in the absence of government payment somewhere, somehow money must be found to pay this cost."

Nineteen million dollars would have to be found to fund the current batch of students' internships. This $19 million would cover stipend for the students (approximately $74,000 per month per student), commuted travelling and gown-washing allowance.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dr Kevin Harvey, said though no decision has been taken not to pay interns, all cannot be paid, due to the large number of participants yearly.

He further argued that the various institutions are collecting fees and the internship is a part of their training, so the institutions should, therefore, help to offset the cost of the programme.

"Training has become a business, and it cannot be that you train as many people as you can take in, and then we automatically have to employ them for the internship, pay them for the internship period and provide the fund and resources to facilitate that internship for any number of students you put out," Harvey reasoned. "There are now a number of institutions training persons plus those from overseas, so in order for us to plan our activities and plan for the number of students that we accommodate in each facility, and this has been over a year ago, we developed a policy and circulated it to the various institutions asking them that they sign an agreement, an MOU (memorandum of understanding) of sorts, with each region and the facilities to say these are the number of students that you should expect per year, and in advance, so that we can plan for those students. That is simply what the policy says."

Davidson said he was not privy to the MOU, but was not opposed to the ministry implementing a policy to regulate the internship programme.

He added, however, that he did not believe the public-health students should be subjected to the same requirements as others as they do not require as much resources and the university already pays for the interns' preceptors.

"When you are dealing with internship and you are dealing with clinical science, for which there is great competition for the use of resources, the ministry has to recover those resources and it is reasonable," Davidson argued.

"The public-health students do not put that demand on the resources in that way; as a matter of fact, they supplement the work of public-health workers in the field. We are not asking for him to change his policy, what we are asking is for him to consider the demand of the services to poor people. You have to disaggregate that situation and begin to look at how we can work together for a win-win situation.

"Public-health inspectors out there in the field are overwhelmed with work and these interns, who are there under their supervision, assist them in doing not only the research, but all the practical aspects. It is this supervision which is part of the practitioners' training for public-health inspector. So don't come to me with foolishness!"

Davidson is now hoping that a quick resolution can be reached, as he argued the matter is extremely urgent.

However, it is not clear when the students will get to embark on their internship.

When the ministry contacted the institution last Thursday, it said it would be contacting the regions to find out what their projections were in terms of the number of interns each region has budgeted for.

After speaking with the regions, the ministry said it would consult with UTech.

ryon.jones@gleanerjm.com