The low credentialing success (19.7%) of the Cape Town clinical ultrasound training programme is concerning considering the time and resource investments made. The rate is significantly lower than six peer international training programmes, whose credentialing success ranged between 30.2 and 100%; however, all six studies were conducted in high resource settings [10,11,12, 14,15,16]. Of more concern, Cape Town’s credentialing success was most likely an overestimate of the national study population since the Cape Town sample represented 50% of the study population but also accounted for 90% of the national credentialing success.
The higher credentialing rate in the emergency medicine cohort could be explained by the 2009 CEMSA rule that only emergency medicine specialist training doctors (registrars) who successfully credentialed as clinical ultrasound providers are allowed to challenge the specialist training exit examinations. The ruling may also explain why only emergency medicine doctors completed the credentialing process (87% were registrars). However, the results also reflect poor uptake of ultrasound training (0%) amongst more experienced (greater than 5 years) emergency medicine consultants.
The most significant barrier to credentialing was severe time constraints. Trainees have limited spare capacity in their current work schedules and found the additional training time burden extremely challenging. This finding concurs with two studies that surveyed comparable target populations: Australian emergency medicine registrars and consultants reported ‘limited time availability’ (44.5%) as their highest ranked barrier, and American registrars and consultants also flagged ‘too many other demands on time’ as their greatest barrier amongst 71.3% of the trainees who failed to credential [10, 12]. The impact of limited access to resources on the time constraints barrier was not well described in any of the studies. To measure the positive effect on improving future time constraints when access barriers are alleviated will therefore need to be subjectively measured.
The highly ranked access barriers as perceived by the non-credentialing group concur with findings of a survey of health workers in 44 LMICs . However, three studies conducted in much higher resourced settings that also trained over long distances and at multiple hospitals reported access to trainers and machines as their most important barriers after time constraints [7, 10, 14, 15]. All these training programmes had low credentialing success rates (30.2 to 44.9%) but still higher than Cape Town’s. Training programmes that divided their training capacity between only a few hospitals with a proper trainer and ultrasound machine access had the highest credentialing outcomes (67.7 to 100%) [12, 16]. Their trainees reported logistical barriers, related to their training programme curriculum, as their highest perceived barriers to credentialing.
Cape Town’s credentialed group experienced a combination of access (trainers and machines) and logistic barriers (difficulty to find patients with pathology to scan) as most important. All the credentialed study participants were emergency medicine doctors. The majority of them were based at relatively well-resourced hospitals for LMIC. They had better access to trainers and ultrasound machines than their peer trainees in other specialties. Stratifying the doctor’s hospital base to their credentialing success suggested that higher resourced hospitals with better access to ultrasound machines and trainers had better credentialing outcomes (refer to regional and district hospitals) (Table 1). Emergency medicine, a relatively new medical specialty in South Africa, is not yet well established at Cape Town’s central academic hospitals resulting in limited trainers and ultrasound machine availability for the trainees who were stationed there.
The finding that more than half of the study’s trainees continued to perform ultrasound scans on their patients despite not being credentialed as CUS providers is not unique. Two studies reported similar results from doctors in Australia and New Zealand [10, 17]. Doctors performing ultrasound on patients without completing their credentialing open themselves to significant liability risks irrespective of the frustration the perceived barriers may cause them . In fact, such actions are deemed as fraudulent and could result in doctors being barred from further clinical practice .
The impacts of the study’s limitations were reduced in accordance with the selected study design. Regular reminders were sent to bolster the survey’s participant numbers to reduce the non-responder bias impact on the results. The survey’s eventual 41.3% response rate was higher than peer surveys (9.6–15%), and close to the 48% achieved by Shah et al., in studies that targeted similar ultrasound trainee study populations [9,10,11]. Trainees with a special interest in CUS were probably more likely to respond, which introduced responder bias, but stratifying the respondent surveys according to their credentialing success reduced its impact. Barriers reported by the non-credentialed group should be more reflective of the study population due to the high percentage (80.3%) that failed to credential. The low credentialing rate amongst the non-emergency medicine doctors could be explained by the dominance of emergency medicine representation within the training faculty and the fact that the CUS curriculum includes both trauma- and medicine-related module applications.
Training doctors to become competent in CUS is an expensive investment for any health system. The cost of purchasing and maintaining ultrasound machines for training has direct budget implications. Providing CUS trainers from an already scarce clinician pool has service delivery impacts. Credentialing success is a measurement of the investment return. It is essential to identify and analyse the barriers that reduce Cape Town’s credentialing success (19.7%) to less than that of its peer groups, so that targeted solutions can be found. Cape Town’s training programme is burdened with low resources, multiple training centres and relatively long distances between training hospitals (rural hospitals outside Cape Town), all conspiring to exacerbate poor access. Novel solutions must focus on improving future trainees’ access to ultrasound machines and trainer feedback without adding to the high monetary and service delivery sacrifices already made.
Others have recommended the use of distance learning web-based education platforms to overcome the unique burdens of training ultrasound within LMIC settings . Web-based education platforms can be integrated successfully into a traditional well-structured apprenticeship model curriculums based on hands-on and simulation training . The combination may result in improved skills proficiency when performing certain ultrasound-guided clinical procedures if the web-based component is introduced early enough in the training of junior residents (registrars or specialist training doctors) .
Future research must focus on adapting such web-based education platforms to improve overall access where trainers can provide feedback on scans submitted by off-site trainees. The development of such a novel web-based learning platform, focussing on improving credentialing success, will need to be measured against its efficacy in reducing the impact of these access barriers throughout its development.