“Okay,” says the driver quietly, “we’re here.”
Quickly, Makhosazana Khoza gathers her paperwork, adjusts her badge, and steps from the van into the cool parking lot. It’s early in the morning, but already several women and children are waiting outside the health facility in Empangeni Town.
Years ago, they’d have been waiting to see Makhosazana. A veteran nurse with a decade of experience, she’d clean her hands and quickly get to work.
But today, she’s doing a different job—one she thinks is just as important. For the next several hours, she’ll be not only a nurse but a mentor. Supported by PATH’s Window of Opportunity (WinOp) project, she’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with a less experienced worker, listening, coaching—and later, collaborating—to help her mentee provide the best care possible.
“Working with mentees is fulfilling,” explains Makhosazana. “You get to support them to confidently use policies and guidelines. On matters that they don’t have as much information and experience on, the process allows them to ask questions. Through mentorship, health workers acquire information and skills that will improve the services provided to patients. That strengthens the health system, helping it move toward supporting a long and healthy life for all people within our country.”
Harnessing the “mentor miracle”
“Wherever you live, you can probably think of a mentor who helped you succeed,” says Scott Gordon, Window of Opportunity project director.
“In global health, empowering experienced health care providers to pass their knowledge on to multiple colleagues unlocks exponential gains,” explains Scott. “That’s the ‘mentor miracle.’ Mentorship is one of the best ways to use the enormous skills communities already have to improve health and save even more lives. The method is intuitive, smart—and very effective.”
To harness that potential, the WinOp project—an enormous, five-year initiative led by PATH in South Africa and Mozambique—included a focus on training and mentoring. Under the leadership of Scott and his team, the project combined training, mentorship, and dozens of other approaches to improve the health and development of women and their children during the critical period between birth and two years of age.
“The process,” explains Scott, “begins with training for health care workers in our focus districts on prenatal care, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, child nutrition, early childhood development, and others. Additional classes prepared them to track the quality of care their facilities were providing, follow best practices and national guidelines in their work, and more.”
But what happened when the training was over? “Mentors like Makhosazana were critical,” says Scott. “Each month, WinOp supported her and nine other mentors to visit dozens of facilities across South Africa and Mozambique. Each mentor and mentee set goals, practiced skills, and evaluated progress to ensure that workers could use and build on their new skills.” In-between, weekly telephone calls kept them in touch.
By the numbers
The mentorship process allows health workers to put their training to work, notes Makhosazana. “For example,” she says, “one newly qualified professional nurse I worked with was struggling with pediatric consultations. She had done mostly theory in her training. I worked side by side with her. In the end, she was able to see children on her own and follow the right recommendations and guidelines.”
The numbers show how important this teaching is. Over five years, mentors with WinOp reached nearly 2,500 staff at health facilities in supported regions. Perinatal mortality rates in the implementation districts dropped from 33 to 31 per live births between the beginning and end of the project. For antenatal clients, mentorship increased the number of women living with HIV who began antiretroviral treatment—by 28 percent. At the same time, the percentage of infants exclusively breastfed at 14 weeks—which can improve their survival, health, and development—rose from 27 to 46 percent in project districts.
Shoulder to shoulder to improve health
Today, the WinOp project has ended—but its impact will continue for years to come. Thanks to mentors like Markhosazana, hundreds more health care workers are meeting patients with greater confidence and skill. For thousands of mothers, children, and families, that small miracle—every day in clinics throughout South Africa and Mozambique—makes all the difference.
- Laura Anderson is an editor at PATH.