Prof Ian Couper, an internationally renowned expert in rural health, had a healthcare leadership award bestowed on him at the 15th World Rural Health Conference.
Health professionals from around the world were honoured in New Delhi, India, for their significant contribution to the development of rural health care, with Couper being the only one from Africa.
"A complete surprise," is how this 56-year-old described his latest award. He is currently director of the Ukwanda Centre for Rural Health at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and regards this as recognition for the work done there to make a difference in rural areas.
More than 1 000 people attended the conference. It is especially exciting that so many young doctors and students are starting to emerge and take on leadership roles in rural health around the world, says Couper.
He has been involved internationally in rural health for the past 22 years. He believes the nine years he had spent in a remote rural community in the north of KwaZulu-Natal, essentially defined his career. It was there that he had the opportunity to attend the first World Rural Health Conference in 1996. "It gave me an insight that the challenge of providing rural health care is not only a South African problem and that countries can learn from each other."
Following on this, in the ensuing year, he was a cofounder of the Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa (RuDASA).
Before Couper took up the position at Ukwanda, he was attached to the University of the Witwatersrand for 13 years, amongst others being director of the Wits Centre for Rural Health. Over the years he built up strong international ties. Besides the fact that this has led to many foreign visits, he was also a visiting academic at a number of institutions around the world.
Looking at rural health care in general, a critical issue for health professionals is access to specialists and other colleagues, but also access to equipment, technology and transport of patients, says Couper. In addition, the availability of education for children and job opportunities for spouses play a role.
But of course, there are major rewards. "You do not only work with numbers. You get to know the people, you make a difference, and you can see that because you are so closely involved with the rural communities. There is also the satisfaction of a team of health professionals working closely together. "
His wish is that Ukwanda will continue to build on its international links and serve as an example and beacon in Africa for rural health care training and development.
Caption (top): Prof Ian Couper.
Caption (insert): Prof Ian Couper receives an award for leadership at the 15th World Rural Health conference.