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UWC’s School of Natural Medicine Closes it’s Doors to New Students

THE END OF AN ERA

After seventeen years of offering the only Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) accredited degree programs in the complementary medicine professions of Naturopathy, Phytotherapy (Medical Herbalism), Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture and Unani-Tibb, the University of the Western Cape’s School of Natural Medicine has officially closed its doors to new students as from next year.

Students already enrolled in these programs have been offered the opportunity to complete their respective degrees in order to register as practitioners.

There have been a dwindling number of graduates over the past decade. Last year only six students completed their degrees, from an intake class of over one hundred five years ago.

Many students who have dropped out over the years and transferred their subject credits to pursue mainstream health science programs like pharmacy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy.

The TNHA is concerned that the current students had been kept in the dark about the faculty’s decision to stop enrolling undergraduates from next year, and had not engaged with professional associations prior to taking this decision. Students were only informed a few weeks before their end-year exams, and have not been briefed about their future at UWC.

From student queries we have seen to the university’s administrative staff, UWC is not being very forthcoming on whether the courses will resume in the future or not.  For many current students and graduates this news has come as a shock and serious questions are being asked about the viability of their professions and whether the respective professional registers under the AHPCSA with remain open or be closed as in the example of Ayurveda.

We know of a few current students who are not planning on continuing their complementary medicine studies and will pursue new career paths.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The School of Natural Medicine was launched in 2001 in response to the re-opening of the professional register for Naturopathy under the control of the AHPCSA.

For almost 20 years the professional register for Naturopathy had remained closed after private schools offering Naturopathic training were closed down in the mid 1980’s. At that time Naturopathic training was supposed be subsumed into Homeopathy offered by the University of Johannesburg (formerly known as Wits University) and the Durban University of Technology (formerly the Natal Technikon). This unfortunately did not happen as promised, and for a number of years internationally trained Naturopaths could not register to practice legally. The result of this was that these Naturopaths and Herbalists were criminally charged for practicing illegally and were precluded from practicing for gain.

After the change of our government in 1994, the new ANC-led government undertook to replace and restructure the old professional regulatory authorities.  As a result the new Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA) replaced the Chiropractors, Homeopaths and Allied Health Service Professions Council in the year 2000. With much pressure from associations representing excluded professions and therapeutic modalities, the AHPCSA re-opened the closed Naturopathy register and and registered many naturopaths who had been locked out and persecuted for almost two decades.

It also did away with the professional register for Herbalism, as a means to separate Western and African trained herbalists, and opened the new register for Phytotherapy (Medical Herbalism). Herbalists who were previously registered were transferred to the new Phytotherapy register and those who had qualified abroad and were precluded from registering were grandfathered onto the Phytotherapy register after a two-year part-time upgrade training program and after passing Board entrance exams.

At the same time the new professional registers of Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture, Unani-Tibb and Ayurveda were also established, along with the modalities of Therapeutic Massage, Therapeutic Reflexology and Therapeutic Aromatherapy.  UWC’s School of Natural Medicine became the accredited higher education institution to train the professions of Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture, Phytotherapy (Medical Herbalism), Unani-Tibb and Ayurveda in 2001. Because of the low interest in Ayuveda, UWC’s Ayurvedic training program was later closed down and its professional register with the APCSA closed.

THE FUTURE

UWC’s School of Natural Medicine has until now been the only accredited institution with the Department of Higher Education and AHPCSA in South Africa where those with a vocation and desire to become Naturopaths, Phytotherapists, Chinese Mediicne Practitioners and Unani Tibb Practitioners could be enrolled and graduated to practice legally.

With the closing of UWC registrations for these professional courses from 2019 there will be no place to study these professions in SA.

Although UWC has stated that it may embark on restructuring its current courses, there are no guarantees that these new courses will be accredited. Students currently enrolled are naturally nervous about the future of the courses they are currently enrolled in, and the future of their chosen professions when they finally graduate. Nobody wants to be in a dead-end profession without growth.

There is some talk about the University of Johannesburg wanting to take offer the training of some of the affected professions in the near future, however no official details nave been communicated.

In 2010 the AHPCSA’s Professional Board for Homeopathy, Naturopathy and Phytotherapy (PBHNP) commissioned a report titled THE INVESTIGATIONS INTO THE POSSIBLE INTEGRATION OF HOMEOPATHY, NATUROPATHY AND PHYTOTHERAPY INTO A SINGULAR PROFESSION. In it the principal author Dr Neil Gower (Homeopath) advanced one possible future for the allied health professions, which was to merge the professions into one single profession. This would allow for specializations in the different fields as post graduate options.

Dr Gower is the Department Head at the Johannesburg University’s Homeopathic Department, and may be exploring the option of moving some of the professions from UWC to his faculty in Johannesburg, and or planning such a merge. However, if such a merge is to take place amendments to the Allied Health Professions Act (Act 63 of 1982) will have to be agreed upon and drafted by the AHPCSA and the Department of Health. An amendment bill could take up to three years to pass through Parliament and be signed into law by the President.

At the end of the day it will be a sad day if these time honoured professions are no longer taught in South Africa.  If training ceases the professional registers for these noble professions will inevitably be closed by the AHPCSA as had happened in previous decades, and more recently with Aurveda.  Hopefully the UWC and AHPCSA will not commit to the same mistakes made in the 1980’s where the professions stagnated for decades and those who trained abroad and practiced were treated like criminals.

Sadly the silence from the professional associations representing the affected professions has been deafening since the UWC’s announcement to stop enrolling new students.

Have they no backbone to fight for the survival of their professions, or are they smug in the comfort of knowing that they will be among the few remaining legally registered practitioners and who will cash in at the exclusion of all others?

This is a developing story, so please come back for updates.