Nothing in Dr Jeff John’s life happens in singles. He comes from an extended family of doctors, he is working on his second book, and he was the only person in 2020 to receive both a Rural Individual and Institutional Award from the Discovery Foundation.
In 2020, Dr Jeff John received a Discovery Foundation Rural Individual Award to continue ground-breaking research for his master’s degree. The urologist investigated the change in renal function after removing one of the kidneys in patients who have had kidney cancer. “This was the first such study done in South Africa,” he says. His findings were published in the July 2020 edition of the South African Journal of Surgery.
He also received a Rural Institutional Award for leading a team at the Frere Hospital Department of Urology in writing a book on urology. The aim of the text is to help non-specialist doctors across the Eastern Cape to identify and treat urological conditions.
"You will never meet an unhappy urologist"
Dr John is a senior lecturer in the Department of Urology 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 ever to meet an unhappy urologist. They really all love what they do.”
In the Eastern Cape, there are only five full-time urologists in the public health sector, with only three referral units in Port Elizabeth, Mthatha and East London. Between them, they serve a population of almost seven million people. A lack of equipment is often a problem in rural areas and the large distances to the centres make early presentation of urological problems unlikely.
Dr John says he is committed to Frere Hospital, and praises the urology department for its camaraderie. Many of his patients are elderly and come from rural areas.
Improving local knowledge
Dr John wasn’t always a research-oriented clinician, but says that doing research has definitely grown on him in the last few years. He encourages the rest of his department to get involved in academics, too.
“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.”
Dr John previously wrote 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 the field of 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 adds.
Both these projects align with the Discovery Foundation’s aim to address shortages of specialists and to improve the quality of healthcare in rural and underserved areas in South Africa.
Seven doctors in the family
Born in India and raised in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, Dr John completed Matric at Dale College and studied medicine at the University of Cape Town. He returned to East London for his internship and stayed on for his community-service year. 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 got married to his classmate Veena. They have two children, six-year-old Aiden and three-year-old Alyssa. But 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 laughs. “We are all in different fields of medicine. My wife and I tend to talk about the day we had when we get home to debrief for a short while and then we give it a break.”
The future of urology in the Eastern Cape
Dr John shares his 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 of our referral area including Grey, Frontier and Butterworth hospitals. 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 travelling to our referral hospital.”
A lofty aim but, judging by what he has already achieved, one that’s within Dr John’s reach.
This article was created for the 2020 Discovery Foundation Awards and has been edited for the Discovery Magazine.
About the Discovery Foundation
Since 2006, the Discovery Foundation has invested over R256 million in grants to support academic medicine through research, development and training medical specialists in South Africa.
The Discovery Foundation is an independent trust with a clear focus – to strengthen the healthcare system – by making sure that more people have access to specialised healthcare services. Each year, the Discovery Foundation gives five different awards to outstanding individual and institutional awardees in the public healthcare sector.
Despite a challenging year marked by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Discovery Foundation continues to support cutting-edge clinical research and medical training in South Africa’s public and academic medicine sector.
Seven of the world’s top 10 causes of death are non-communicable diseases, according to the WHO’s 2019 Global Health Estimates. Discovery Foundation Award recipient Dr Zamanci September believes education is key to making South Africans healthier.
If Dr Nozipho Nyakale – a nuclear medicine specialist from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University – has her way, more patients at Pietersburg Hospital in Limpopo will have access to the enormous advantages this patient-targeted medicine can offer.