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Prof. Hopewell Ntsinjana talks about innovation in the field of paediatric cardiology for Africa

Prof. Hopewell Ntsinjana’s appointment as Honorary Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Prof. Ntsinjana is the Head of Cardiology at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital (NMCH) and has his sights focused on growing a heart centre at NMCH to address the backlog of surgeries in our country.

His vision for the heart centre marries the potential of Basic Scientists and clinicians to run cutting-edge research dedicated to addressing the unique conditions of the African patient. In this interview, Prof. Ntsinjana talks through his journey in medicine and how it led him to dedicating his life to changing paediatric cardiology in Africa for Africans.

Congratulations on your appointment as Honorary Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. What does this momentous achievement mean to you?

It’s quite a prestige. This is an academic appointment. As clinicians, we have two streams that work concurrently, especially with the university-affiliated hospitals. There’s a clinical stream and an academic stream. So the university promotion is recognising the academic input that I have made of which I am every honoured.

What motivated you to become a paediatric cardiologist?

When you start, you just want to be a doctor. After the basic medical degree, that’s what you are. But you start realising that there are a lot of unanswered questions that you may develop around your patients. Why are we using this kind of treatment? Can we do this better? Is there something that is groundbreaking that can improve this? Through doing the research, you start answering those questions. Once you’ve answered one, there’s always another question to answer.

Why is it important to have locally-based clinical researchers?

There are very few researchers in the clinical field, especially in South Africa or in Africa. We depend on the data that comes from overseas to treat African patients. The drive is really for Africans to get to the level where they answer the African patient’s problems for clinical questions using their own expertise or African research.

What would you say fuels your passion for paediatrics?

I think there’s something marvelous about looking after children. You know, what you see is what you get. In many adult cases, you encounter lifestyle-related problems that are a patient’s own doing. It’s never a child’s fault that they got sick, to start with. They can’t speak for themselves so they need an advocate because children are not just adults that are squashed up into small sizes.

How is the approach for treating children different from treating adults?

They are unique individuals with unique problems and if there’s nobody to speak up for them concerning those problems, then we risk walking down a dangerous path. Once a child enters the ward, they might come in with their parents crying and everybody distressed, but once you get them well, they are up and about and they are high fiving you. You see the gratification of your results instantly and I don’t think any other field in medicine gives you that.

How do you go about building an internal team that can make this a reality?

You get Basic Scientists to do lab research. You get clinics, which is where we treat patients on the other side. You then link the two and that’s where translational medicine happens; that’s where you translate what has been developed in the world to testing it and then to the point of rolling it out as a routine clinical practice.

And what about for NMCH specifically?

My aim with the heart centre at NMCH is to get it to a level where we’ve got a lab that’s got physicists and biomedical engineers. We want to get to the point where we do 3D printing of the imaged heart, we take this to the lab and then we run cutting-edge research that is going to lead to patient-specific clinical treatment. We want to move away from the ‘one pill treats all’ approach. This is something new on the horizon and artificial intelligence is already starting in many, many other fields of medicine, including paediatric cardiology abroad. Africa mustn’t be left behind with that.