Double recognition for SA doctor’s research in urology

Dr Jeff John is the only recipient of both a Rural Individual and Institutional Award from the Discovery Foundation in 2020

Dr Jeff John.
Dr Jeff John.
Image: Supplied/Discovery Foundation

Qualified urologist Dr Jeff John has received a Discovery Foundation Rural Individual Award to continue his master’s degree research on the change in renal function after removing one of the kidneys in patients who have had cancer.

“This was the first such study done in SA,” he says. His findings were published in the July 2020 edition of the South African Journal of Surgery.

John also received a Rural Institutional Award for leading a team at the Frere Hospital urology department who’ll be writing a book aimed at non-specialist doctors in the Eastern Cape to help them deal with patients’ urological problems.

Seven doctors in the family

Born in India and raised in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, John completed matric at Dale College and studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. He returned to East London for his internship and community service. He completed much of his training as a urology registrar in the small town, but also spent a year at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

At the end of his final year of medicine, he married Veena, a classmate, and they now have two children, six-year-old Aiden and three-year-old Alyssa. He and his wife, a paediatrician at the same hospital, are not the only doctors in the family. His parents are doctors in and around King William's Town and his brother and sister-in-law are specialist physicians in the Cape Town area. He also has two sisters-in-law who are paediatricians.

“Growing up, we never really knew anything other than medicine. My parents inspired me and my brother. They taught us humility, kindness, empathy and integrity. This profession makes you need all of these things. We just wanted to emulate everything they stood for,” he says.

So, do they talk shop when they get together? “Not too much,” he says. “We’re all in different fields of medicine. My wife and I talk about our days when we get home to debrief for a short while and then we give it a break.”

‘You will never meet an unhappy urologist’

John has recently been appointed a senior lecturer in the urology department at the Walter Sisulu University East London campus.

“Urology is a fantastic surgical discipline. It’s a great blend of surgical and medical care,” he says. “By attending to the needs of our patients, the quality of life of the patients and their caregivers are significantly improved. Urologists are also the nicest people and, in general, you are unlikely to meet an unhappy urologist. They really all love what they do.”

In the Eastern Cape, there are now only five full-time urologists in the public health sector with three referral units in Port Elizabeth, Mthatha and East London. They serve a population of close to seven-million people. A lack of equipment is often a problem in rural areas, and the large distances to the centres make an early presentation of urological problems unlikely.

Despite the seriousness of their discipline, John and his wife are committed to Frere Hospital. He praises the urology department for its camaraderie, and says many of his patients are elderly and come from rural areas. They are humble and grateful that there is help available.

Improving local knowledge

John wasn’t always a research-orientated clinician, but says it has definitely grown on him, and he’s encouraging the rest of his department to also get involved in academics.

“The university notified us of the opportunities presented by the Discovery Foundation, and I clearly remember the day the representatives came to talk to us. It was just before my final exams and I am grateful that I sacrificed some studying time to attend the session.” 

John authored a 270-page book called Surgery Survival Guide, which is widely circulated and deals with common surgical emergencies.

“Now that I am a qualified urologist, I wanted to do something similar in urology and thought the Discovery Foundation would be able to assist. By producing a handbook of common urological pathologies with the help of the foundation, I hope to improve the knowledge of these conditions across the province to non-specialists to improve patient care,” he says.

Both these projects align with the Discovery Foundation’s aim to address shortages of specialists and to improve the quality of health care in rural and underserved areas in SA.

The future of urology in the Eastern Cape

John has a bold vision for the future of urology in the Eastern Cape. “I would like to set up a community urology programme. This would entail visits to hospitals in our referral area including Grey, Frontier and Butterworth hospitals,” he says.

“The aim is to empower and equip health professionals to manage urological conditions where they can, and refer patients to specialist services timeously. Our waiting list for a consult at the outpatient clinics is extremely long. This community urology programme will also help to reduce the waiting times and save patients hours of travelling to our referral hospital.”

A lofty aim with a number of stakeholders, who would need to approve the project, but judging by what John has already achieved, this vision is by no means impossible to achieve.

This article was paid for by the Discovery Foundation.


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