Health care of primary concern for Volmink

11 March 2003

Moving in: Prof Jimmy Volmink is the Faculty of Health Sciences' new GlaxoWellcome Chair of Primary Health Care.

PROFESSOR Jimmy Volmink – with a family of four in tow – has returned from a two-year residence in the United States to step in as UCT's new GlaxoWellcome Chair of Primary Health Care in the Faculty of Health Sciences, a move primarily inspired, he says, by the desire to have a tangible influence on health care in the province and country.

The 46-year old Volmink becomes only the second person to hold this chair. He succeeds the late Dr Dumo Baqwa, who passed away in August 2001.

A Capetonian by birth, Volmink grew up in Belgravia Estate in Athlone, matriculating from Alexander Sinton High School in 1974. Eager to do medical studies, he enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in biochemistry, at UCT in 1977, as part of a relatively small group of black students on Campus.

He joined an even smaller black minority immediately on completion of this degree, taking up studies at the UCT medical school in 1978. Five years later – a period punctuated by the occasional class boycotts – he graduated as a medical doctor, and would over the next few years work as medical officer in Swaziland, as senior house officer at Red Cross Children's Hospital, and as medical officer, district surgeon and family practitioner in Mitchells Plain, among other posts.

Volmink headed for the US for the first time in 1987, on a fellowship to Harvard University where he completed a masters degree in public health. Returning to South Africa, he continued his work in Mitchells Plain before joining the Medical Research Council (MRC) as a specialist epidemiologist. He was awarded the Nuffield Medical Fellowship in 1993 completing a doctorate in cardio-vascular medicine at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom in 1996.

He found his way to the MRC again directly afterwards, this time as founding director of the South African Cochrane Centre, part of the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organisation that studies the efficacy of health care interventions.

The US beckoned once more, and in 2001 he took up office as Director of Research and Analysis at the Global Health Council in Washington DC. Here he would immerse himself in the provision of up-to-date research information to policy-makers and advocates working to improve global health.

Sometime last year, Volmink was approached to apply for the UCT post. “It seemed to be the kind of job that would be potentially influential and help me to make a real contribution to health care,” he notes.

So, on a sleepy January 2 this year, he arrived at the Medical School to helm the University's primary health care efforts. For much of the past two months, he has busied himself producing – for both his own operational purposes and also to clear up any misconceptions among others – an outline of the extent and nature of primary health care, oft confused, he says, even in government, with primary care (“first contact care”).

To this end, he has drawn up an “operational definition” of primary health care, one that he hopes will guide the work of the faculty's many departments over the next few years. Focussing on both individual and population health needs, Volmink describes primary health care as an approach that attempts to harness the efforts of a range of professional disciplines working alongside the community to promote health.

His rubric defines primary health care as evidence-based (“scientific”) essential care made available to everyone (“equity”) at the appropriate level of the health care system (“primary or higher level”) and delivered in a manner that is acceptable to both the individual and the community. “Primary health care,” he adds, “is an approach to health care, a philosophy about how you deliver health care.”

In keeping with this tenet, Volmink sees his responsibility as, among other things, providing support for other departments in the faculty, promoting inter-disciplinary research into major health issues, and serving as link between the health science faculty and policy makers in the province. He also plans to keep up his own research interests into interventions for the control of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

In the meantime, he awaits a move to a new office – he's keeping his boxes unpacked until then – and the arrival of a new secretary. And occasionally he also bumps into familiar faces, such as daughter Lauren who is also settling in at the medical campus as a first-year medical student (she had given up a place in a US medical school and a part-time modelling career in her zeal to return to South Africa) and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Wieland Gevers.

Gevers, currently with the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM), made an “indelible impression” on the young Volmink during his time as a medical student, both as teacher and mentor. “I can only describe him as one of my heroes – he was not only an inspiring teacher, but he also took a personal interest in me as a student,” recalls Volmink.

Marking their new association, mentor and former student earlier this year celebrated their return to the faculty over a cup of collegial tea at a special welcome-back function.

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27 Mar 2003

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