Why Do They Leave? Challenges to Retention of Surgical Clinical Officers in District Hospitals in Malawi

Document Type : Original Article


1 Institute of Global Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin 2, Ireland

2 Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

3 Division of Population Health Sciences, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin 2, Ireland

4 Department of Surgery, College of Medicine Malawi, Blantyre, Malawi

5 Radboud University Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands


Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are the worst affected by a lack of safe and affordable access to safe surgery. The significant unmet surgical need can be in part attributed to surgical workforce shortages that disproportionately affect rural areas of these countries. To combat this, Malawi has introduced a cadre of non-physician clinicians (NPCs) called clinical officers (COs), trained to the level of a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Surgery. This study explored the barriers and enablers to their retention in rural district hospitals (DHs), as perceived by the first cohort of COs trained to BSc in Surgery level in Malawi.
A longitudinal qualitative research approach was used based on interviews with 16 COs, practicing at DHs, during their BSc training (2015); and again with 15 of them after their graduation (2019). Data from both time points were analysed and compared using a top-down thematic analysis approach.
Of the 16 COs interviewed in 2015, 11 intended to take up a post at a DH following graduation; however, only 6 subsequently did so. The major barriers to remaining in a DH post as perceived by these COs were lack of promotion, a more attractive salary elsewhere; and unclear, stagnant career progression within surgery. For those who remained working in DH posts, the main enablers are a willingness to accept a low salary, to generate greater opportunities to engage in additional earning opportunities; the hope of promotional opportunities within the government system; and greater responsibility and recognition of their surgical knowledge and skills as a BSc-holder at the district level.
The sustainability of surgically trained NPCs in Malawi is not assured and further work is required to develop and implement successful retention strategies, which will require a multi-sector approach. This paper provides insights into barriers and enablers to retention of this newly-introduced cadre and has important lessons for policy-makers in Malawi and other countries employing NPCs to deliver essential surgery.


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Volume 11, Issue 3
March 2022
Pages 354-361
  • Receive Date: 04 February 2020
  • Revise Date: 09 April 2020
  • Accept Date: 20 July 2020
  • First Publish Date: 01 March 2022