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Dr Joshua Fieggen, a University of Cape Town (UCT) MBChB alumnus and a master’s-in-waiting graduate, is one of two UCT alumni to be awarded a 2023 Rhodes Scholarship. Receipt of this highly regarded scholarship means that he becomes one of 10 emerging young leaders in Southern Africa who will undertake postgraduate study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK). The other UCT recipient is Dr Mary Gouws.

According to the Rhodes Trust, the scholarship is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious international scholarship programme in the world. It presents young, emerging academics with a life-changing opportunity to pursue full-time postgraduate study at one of the world’s leading academic institutions. Dr Fieggen is a junior medical doctor at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) in Johannesburg, and an aspiring epidemiology and biostatistics researcher. He graduated with his MBChB from UCT in 2020 and has just completed his master’s in public health. Fieggen will graduate on 14 December.

“Being awarded this scholarship has been an incredible privilege and affirmation of the work I have put in over the years.”

“Being awarded this scholarship has been an incredible privilege and affirmation of the work I have put in over the years. However, it has also been an important source of reflection about what it means to be awarded a Southern African scholarship that still bears the name of Cecil John Rhodes. More broadly, it acknowledges the series of privileges that have led to me being in a position to be awarded this opportunity,” Fieggen said.

Pursuing a PhD

Fieggen will study towards a PhD in one of two disciplines: population health or primary healthcare. He said he’s looking forward to expanding his current interest by using routinely collected health data to improve health outcomes for patients in the long-term. His goal, he explained, is to use the routinely available data to develop a machine learning tool that will streamline the healthcare service offering and optimise patients’ experiences in healthcare facilities. Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence and computer science that focuses on the use of data and algorithms to imitate the way humans learn to improve accuracy.

“I believe that by using health data more effectively, we’ll be able to address some of the massive health inequities that exist both within and between countries using digital technology,” he said. “However, it’s critical that countries have the right skillset to develop and validate these technologies independently, or the issues around agenda setting and the appropriateness of solutions that have plagued global health thus far will just be perpetuated.”

During his time at Oxford, Fieggen will make it his mission to ensure that his digital tool will be designed in such a way that it directly addresses some of South Africa’s most pressing health challenges, which, he added, relate to large in-hospital patient numbers and a lack of resources. He has experienced this first-hand at CHBAH.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

As Fieggen packs up his home and plans to bid CHBAH and South Africa farewell for now, he says he hopes that when he returns, he’ll be able to use his research to make an impact on South Africa’s public healthcare system and improve the service for many South Africans.

“I guess that’s what research is all about: using data to improve health outcomes and ultimately improve people’s quality of life. Digital health presents such a fantastic opportunity to do this. I hope that when I return, we can put some of this work into practice,” he added.

For now, he’s looking forward to immersing himself in a completely different world for a few years and enjoying what Oxford and the UK have to offer.

“Academically, I’m looking forward to being able to focus entirely on research for a while without the stresses associated with clinical work.”

“I’m excited to live in Oxford and experience university life in such a historic place. Academically, I’m looking forward to being able to focus entirely on research for a while without the stresses associated with clinical work. And socially, I’m looking forward to making new friends, travelling and perhaps even doing some rowing,” he said.

 

DECEMBER 2022 | STORY NIÉMAH DAVIDS. PHOTO SUPPLIED.