Catching up with Dr. Henry Sunpath

Dr Henry Sunpath has been the Clinical Head of Internal Medicine and Consultant in HIV Medicine at McCord Hospital since 2002. He has been in The South African ARV Resistance Cohort Study since 2004 and has many publications in peer reviewed journals.

He is also in the TB Immunology Study in a K-RITH/ McCord collaboration since 2008. Dr Sunpath is an honorary lecturer in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine. He is the course director for the Annual Workshop in Advanced Clinical Care – AIDS, which is in its 6th year.

He also obtained an MPH degree at UKZN in 2010. His main research interests in Public Health are in the Expedited ART Initiation Programme for PL HIV presenting with advanced disease.

Dr Sunpath’s current situation and job at the Department of Health is the district specialist family physician having done work previously in HIV/palliative care work at McCord care hospital.

We managed to have a chat with Dr Sunpath who spoke about the great work and interventions that are being made in the Ethekwini District regarding palliative care. Dr Sunpath commented on the fact that many hospitals in the district are extremely full and short of beds and even though there is a definite need for in-patient palliative care beds, it was not going to be possible to meet this need because of the shortage of resources for specialist palliative care services.

With the government struggling to build infrastructure in hospitals for specialised palliative care because of funding, one has to look at other means and a way to bring these services to the people. That is exactly what has happened in Durban, Ethekwini District, where there is a hospital (Wentworth hospital) that has a large infrastructure with empty space and beds.

Discussion was conducted between the CEO of Wentworth hospital and Dr Sunpath, where an agreement was made on making the space and beds available for a specialised palliative care unit. The first steps to realise this happened in terms of identifying the wards, the beds and forming a technical working group in the district to start the process. It’s soon to be opened and patients can be admitted from other hospitals for inpatient specialist care, because of the fact that in the district there are only two hospitals and bed space is very limited. One hospital has 6 beds and the other has 8 beds. There is also a need for expertise in Palliative care and that is where Dr Sunpath is hoping to make strides.

Challenges/opportunities facing the sector of hospice and palliative care

Dr Sunpath commented on the opportunities that face the sector of hospice and palliative care, “One will be able to educate doctors and nurses in various hospitals to identify patients that require specialist palliative care and then transfer them” he stated.  

The challenges he recalled are those like training your staff to make sure that they function well in every area and that these trained professionals will always provide support in the actual hospitals.

“I feel for palliative care to really grow in the hospitals; one needs to identify palliative nurse champions in each ward, district and regional hospital so that they can then advocate on behalf of the consultancy team in those words for the actual palliative care needs that arise in these hospitals”  he stated.

The need is to integrate palliative care into every discipline of medicine, but one of the most glaring needs for Dr Sunpath is that a number of tertiary hospitals don’t actually have the presence of a palliative care team in their situation, and he believes the placing of a team in the hospitals and allowing them to support the services would be a very significant step. This in essence would really alleviate pain and suffering in these hospitals by having a team there working hand in hand with the other doctors.

“This is my vision and through hard work and dedication I can see it happening.”