Public Health & Health Systems

Struggle for health continues in Eastern Cape

Written by Health-e News

Health conditions in the former Transkei have worsened since 1994, mainly thanks to poor management and budget cuts.

By Kerry Cullinan

Elderly Mayakhe Ngangele was referred to Umtata General Hospital from an outlying district hospital, and has been waiting for two days to see a doctor.

But the single Cuban doctor on duty in outpatients this Saturday night is only seeing emergency cases ‘€“ and there are already nine people crammed into the tiny consulting room and three waiting outside.

“I have been sleeping here, and I am hungry,” says Ngangele, raising himself slowly off the waiting room bench.

The abdominal pains, which could not be diagnosed by doctors at Emadwaleni Hospital, are getting more intense. But nurses say he will probably only see a doctor on Monday.

Umtata General is classified as a regional hospital, and is supposed to be able to offer more specialised care to patients referred to it from at least 15 district hospitals in the vicinity.

On a recent weekend visit, the hospital had run out of disinfectant, anti-septic cream, anti-tetanus injections, gauze and the re-agent necessary to process HIV tests. It also suffers periodic shortages of essential drugs such as antibiotics.

There are not enough doctors, patients are sharing beds and nurses say they are overwhelmed by their workload and depressed by poor working conditions.

Health indicators in the former Transkei are extremely poor, and services have got worse since 1994 ‘€“ thanks mainly to drastic budget cuts and poor management.

According to research published by Health Systems Trust, 80,5 babies out of 1 000 die before the age of five in the Eastern Cape. This is the worst rate in the country where the national average is 59.

Former Eastern Cape Health MEC Dr Trudy Thomas, who resigned from the ANC last year in protest against deteriorating health services, says the province’€™s operational health costs were slashed from R797-million in 1997/98 to R350-million in 1999/2000.

The Eastern Cape now spends R70 per patient in the public sector, while the national average is R147.

Doctors joke that the health service is “like Hollywood, because everyone is in acting positions” ‘€“ from MEC Max Mamase (his predecessor faces over 1000 charges of fraud) to district managers and hospital superintendents.

“We really are not managing,” admits Sister Koleka Yako, head of the 45-bed male medical ward in Umtata. “It is impossible to take care of all the patients with only three nurses, so we attend to those who are critical and those who need post-operative care.”

That weekend, 91 mothers were sharing 48 beds in the maternity ward, some lying top-to-toe in the pushed-together beds.

Nonceba* has been in the ward since early January, when she delivered a premature baby. She has heart problems but has shared her bed with countless kicking strangers since she was admitted.

“It is terrible. There is always noise and there is no space,” says Nonceba, who looks exhausted and pale.

Sister Mandisa Mntwana says that, at times there are 120 women in the ward, with only four nurses in attendance at night. The stench of blood and body fluids hangs heavily in the air, and clean linen is in short supply.

In the nursery, six abandoned babies lie in little plastic cots ranged along a wall. Twin boys, believed to be about four months old, are both simply tagged Nozukile after their mother who died in childbirth.

“All they (babies) get is porridge and the glucose water from the intravenous drips,” says Mntwana.

In the outpatients’€™ department, urine and blood splatter the corridor in the late afternoon. Bins are overflowing and a used needle lies on the floor.

“Patients must bring relatives with them to outpatients to save them from falling off the bed, bring them water and all that. If you don’€™t have a relative, it’€™s too bad,” says Chief professional nurse Vuyiswa Ngwentle.

“Some patients are supposed to be hospitalised but there are no beds,” confirms Ngwentle.

In the casualty ward, a man with serious head injuries lies in the recovery room. “He should have been admitted to one of the wards,” says Ngwentle, “but there is no space.”

Casualty Sister Ntombizoxolo Topu sees up to 80 patients pass through her department a night ‘€“ mainly gunshot, stab and car accident victims.

“There are five nurses, and three doctors, two in the operating theatre,” says Topu. “We are trying very hard but there is a shortage of staff. There is also a gross shortage of sheets and blankets and sometimes essential drugs.”

There are no gauze bandages and Topu and her staff are applying thin sanitary pads to patients’€™ wounds. Anti-tetanus injections and anti-septic cream are also out of stock.

“It is very depressing,” says Topu. “We want to meet the needs of the patients but we can’€™t because of lack of staff and equipment. Staff resign, die or retire and they are never replaced. Things are getting worse and worse.”

About four hours’€™ drive from Umtata lies Greenville Hospital. Attractive and clean, the former missionary hospital appears to be an island of tranquillity compared to the chaotic Umtata.

However, the reason for the peaceful atmosphere is the shocking fact that the hospital, in the Bizana district, has virtually no patients.

“People know that there is only one doctor here, so they prefer to go somewhere else,” says Sister Nomsa Bhengu.

The hospital last had a superintendent in “about 1995” says Bhengu. No one knows where the matron in charge of hospital services is. The only doctor is in Bisho for two days of meetings. Last year when he took three months’€™ study leave, the hospital was reduced to a ghost facility, say nurses.

The TB ward has 40 beds, eight nurses and 16 patients. The maternity ward has 16 beds and two patients. At outpatients, there are nine nurses and two patients. The busiest ward is the female medical ward, which can take 45 patients but has 35.

“The day is too long. We are not doing our job,” says Sister Zingiswa Mzobe, who has been at Greenville since 1974 and remembers when the hospital operated with five doctors and “many” patients.

“Sometimes emergency cases come here with public transport and we have to turn them back,” says Sister Luyanda Nqenqa, head of outpatients.

Like Greenville, Rietvlei in the Umzimkulu area is also a district hospital. However, unlike Greenville, the 220-bed Rietvlei has a superintendent, five fulltime doctors and a full complement of patients.

Acting superintendent Dr Nigel Hoffman says it has taken him 21 months to cut through the red tape to secure the services of two foreign doctors to bolster his staff complement.

Despite Rietvlei’€™s many problems, Hoffman is not the kind of person to complain. He and his wife, Clare, also a doctor, have been at Rietvlei for 14 years.

“It has been a difficult two years because of the changes to district boundaries. It would also be good to have a long term vision of where we are going. But it is too easy to focus on the problems and lose sight of what we can do,” he says.

However, Hoffman says efficiency is seriously hampered by two factors. The first is that the hospital administration is powerless to deal with staff disciplinary problems.

“Many staff don’€™t want to do a full day’€™s work, which means there is more pressure on those who do work hard.

“There is a huge backlog of outstanding disciplinary hearings, even minor cases, all of which have to be heard at higher levels. Dismissal cases have to be heard at head office, for example. Those who face disciplinary charges know they can get away with not doing what they are supposed to.

The second problem is a chronic lack of transport, which prevents medical staff from reaching those who need it most. The one ambulance stationed at Rietvlei has done 400 000km, and doubles up as a delivery vehicle.

MEC Mamase’€™s spokesperson, Mahlubandile Mageda, said his department was aware of the problems at Umtata General, and had appointed a CEO about a month ago to improve the situation.

“We know that Umtata is overcrowded and short staffed. We are in the process of filling critical posts for doctors,” said Mageda. “Professional nurses and even cleaners are also going to be recruited. We have advertised for over 800 posts since December but so far we only have about 300 applications. But by the end of April, we expect Umtata to have all the required staff.”

Mageda added that some of the problems stemmed from “irresponsible management” caused by managers from the former homelands “only thinking about their own stomachs and not about services”.

“There is even under-spending in health because managers are only working for a salary. There is no spirit of Batho Pele (“people first”).”

He conceded that there had been a backlog of up to 600 labour cases at province, but that his department had employed someone to handle these. The province is planning to “devolve powers to districts, municipalities and institutions to deal with disciplinary matters”.

While Mageda said no one in his office even knew where Greenville was, he would ensure that provincial officials visited the hospital to evaluate its services.

But it is hard to have confidence in Mageda’€™s promises as the province has consistently failed over a number of years to improve the quality health services. Perhaps it is time for national political intervention to prevent the few functional facilities in the former Transkei from being destroyed ‘€“ costing more poor South Africans their lives. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.

About the author

Health-e News

Health-e News is South Africa's dedicated health news service and home to OurHealth citizen journalism. Follow us on Twitter @HealtheNews