Analysis: Where we are with NIMART 13 years later
Like many countries, South Africa has a shortage of healthcare workers – particularly of doctors. One response to such shortages is task-shifting – in short, to let doctors focus on the things only they can do, and to shift some other less specialised tasks to other healthcare workers like nurses or pharmacists.
Task-shifting can take many forms. Earlier this year Spotlight reported on a court case that gave the green light to specially trained pharmacists to dispense antiretroviral treatment without a script (the judgement is being appealed). Similarly taking pressure off public sector clinics, the Department of Health has for several years now allowed some people to pick up their medicines at participating private sector pharmacies or other pickup points. Less well implemented, was the introduction of clinical associates in 2008 as a new type of mid-level healthcare worker that can take some of the pressure off of doctors and stand-in for them in some situations.
Probably the most impactful example of task-shifting in South Africa, however, was the introduction of Nurse Initiated and Managed Antiretroviral treatment (NIMART) in 2010.
What is NIMART?
Dr Silingene Ngcobo, a lecturer at the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a Board Member of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, says NIMART is a clinical management program for people living with HIV which is driven by registered nurses. This means that registered nurses can independently manage a person living with HIV, starting from screening and diagnosis, all the way to treating, and monitoring throughout the HIV care continuum in the absence of a medical doctor.
As explained by Mmotsi Moloi, Training Programme Manager at the Aurum Institute (an NGO), prior to the introduction of NIMART in 2010 only doctors were authorised to prescribe antiretroviral therapy.
The rollout of antiretrovirals in South Africa technically started in 2004, but it only gathered momentum after the end of state-backed AIDS denialism in 2008. It soon after became clear that South Africa would not have enough doctors to handle the demand for HIV treatment and nurses would have to be roped in.
“The waiting lists became long, and the doctors could not meet the increasing demand of clients in need of antiretroviral treatment, this led to the death of clients while awaiting to be initiated,” says Moloi. “There was an urgent need to remedy the situation which was to decentralise management of HIV to Primary health care facilities and professional nurses to be trained and authorised to manage HIV infected clients.”
Ngcobo says nurses are often the only healthcare providers available to provide HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. She says the South African healthcare delivery system approach has changed from hospital-centred care to promotion of health and prevention of disease through primary healthcare and the introduction of NIMART fits this shift.
Hard to quantify
According to estimates from Thembisa, the leading mathematical model of HIV in the country, the number of people taking HIV treatment in South Africa increased from 1.2 million in 2010 to 5.7 million in 2022. How big a part NIMART played in this remarkable scale-up of treatment is hard to quantify, but that it played a pivotal role seems clear.
A review study published in 2021 that looked back at 10 years of NIMART in South Africa, found that adequate NIMART training “results in improved knowledge of HIV management, greater confidence and clinical competence, particularly if accompanied by mentoring”.
The review summarised results from several smaller studies conducted in different provinces on NIMART – which show, on a small scale at least, what potential impact NIMART has had. Among other things, the training of nurses to initiate and manage HIV treatment led to feelings of empowerment, and when coupled with appropriate training and support can “lead to increased quality of patient care, confidence and professional development”.
Studies conducted in Johannesburg cited by the review found that NIMART training increased access to HIV treatment, reduced workloads at referral facilities, and reduced referrals to tertiary hospitals. Nurses also saw an “improvement in the quality of life of their patients and the retention of patients in care, which they felt reflected the success of NIMART”.
When asked how many NIMART-qualified nurses we have in the country, Foster Mohale, spokesperson for the National Department of Health, says he can’t provide an exact number since they no longer collect data on NIMART since it has been incorporated in broader HIV training. He also says that provinces are the custodians of data for all trained healthcare workers and points out that the numbers change all the time due to attrition.
What NIMART nurses do
Ngcobo says NIMART nurses assess and screen people living with HIV for treatment eligibility, initiate antiretroviral therapy, provide adherence counselling and monitoring, screen for opportunistic infections, offer various preventative therapies, psychological support, as well as appropriate referrals to other members of the disciplinary team, and oversee repeat visits throughout the healthcare user’s life while managing any other health condition that the person might have.
Nurses also have to support people with tuberculosis and non-communicable diseases (such as diabetes and hypertension) to take treatment as prescribed.
“For effective management of other diseases, NIMART nurses should actually work with all other conditions because a person living with HIV still can gets various other conditions which still need to be managed. Therefore, the role of [the] NIMART nurse is to wholistically manage the patient and provide all the necessary healthcare services that the healthcare user in front of them will be requiring,” says Ngcobo.
The NIMART programme has changed somewhat since its launch back in 2010. Mohale says the programme now also covers the majority of healthcare professionals like medical doctors, pharmacists, registered or professional nurses, and other healthcare professionals who are authorised by their statutory bodies to assess, diagnose, prescribe, and dispense medications. He says in 2017 NIMART was changed to “Basic HIV for Health Care Professionals”, but the name NIMART is still in wide use.
The essence of the programme however remains that a professional nurse, or other qualifying healthcare professional, must complete special training (see this online course for example) before they are authorised to prescribe HIV treatment and manage the treatment and care of people living with HIV. Training typically requires both an exam and some practical work, ideally with the support of a mentor.
All prescribing by nurses in the public sector relies on section 56(6) of the Nursing Act, which allows an exception to the Medicines Act and other health-related laws, explains Andy Gray, Senior Lecturer in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “They therefore do not need section 22A(15) permits or section 22C(1)(a) dispensing licences in terms of the Medicines Act,” he says.
The legalities of how nurse prescribing works in South Africa is set out in a 2016 policy document issued by the National Department of Health. Amongst others, the document states that, “a nurse may only perform the functions authorised by Section 56(6) in public sector facilities in the district or municipality where the authorisation was granted to him/her”. In other words, nurses who move to jobs at other facilities or in other districts will often require new authorisation before they may prescribe medicines such as antiretrovirals.
But there are signs that training and mentorship is not functioning optimally across the board.
“There is non-standardised training and inadequate mentoring as the country doesn’t have enough trainers,” says Mohale. “There are human resource constraints for both trainers and nurses to be trained. Some districts rely on their district support partners to carry out trainings on their behalf.”
“Staff shortage from the facilities also leads to some nurses not being able to be trained due to demand for other health services at their service delivery points. Some challenges include failure to identify and manage drug-drug and drug-food interactions which are important in making sure that the patients are suppressing their viral loads,” he adds.
Mohale’s comments echo several barriers to the success of NIMART that were identified in the 2021 review study, including: “non-standardised training, inadequate mentoring, human resource constraints, health system challenges, lack of support and empowerment, and challenges with legislation, policy and guidelines”.