Major Gauteng hospitals such as Steve Biko and Charlotte Maxeke academic hospitals are struggling to cope with the patient loads, leaving some waiting months for treatment. When these patients do reach the front of the queue, their care is compromised due to regular equipment breakdowns, and shortages of drugs and staff, according to Jack Bloom, Democratic Alliance spokesperson for health in Gauteng.

Patient groups are now calling for ring-fenced funding for cancer treatment as at least one group says it is considering legal action.

“We believe that South Africa needs a national budget for oncology that will ensure that the resources in our country are effectively utilised to serve the patient population who desperately need cancer treatment desperately,” said Linda Greeff from the cancer organisation People Living With Cancer.

Another group, Campaigning for Cancer, said that they have been advocating improved cancer treatment in Gauteng for months and are considering legal action against the provincial Department of Health.

“Every day, Campaigning for Cancer is faced with patients whose lives are endangered due to chronic delays in them receiving access to appropriate cancer treatment,” said the campaign’s Lauren Pretorius.

“Over the past eighteen months we have repeatedly requested the MEC to resolve the problems causing delays and have given the provincial department ample opportunity to resolve these problems,” she said. “It appears as if court action may now be inevitable in order properly to advance the constitutional rights of access to health care of patients.”

Hospitals struggling to cope with demand

At Steve Biko Academic Hospital, as many as 300 cancer patients are on a waiting list for treatment dating back to 2012.  Exacerbating the backlog, the hospital receives about 40 new referrals weekly not only from Gauteng patients but also patients referred from the Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga and Free State provinces, according to answers provided to the Gauteng Provincial Legislature by MEC for Health Hope Popo.

Meanwhile, cancer patients at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital wait up to two months for radiation treatment.

The hospitals also suffer regular machine breakdowns.

Popo confirmed that Steve Biko hospital had gone without two pieces of equipment, linear accelerators and computed tomography (CT) scanners, necessary to treatment and diagnose cancers for 93 days.

Linear accelerators are used to provide radiation treatment while CT scanners help doctors diagnose tumours, monitor treatment and confirm that cancers have gone into remission.

At Charlotte Maxeke hospital, three linear accelerators packed up in February and an internal radiotherapy machine – used to deliver radiation treatments for certain kinds of cancers including cervical cancer – broke down in January. Most recently, two cobalt accelerators, also used to provide radiation treatment, broke in June.

“Many patients’ chances of survival are reduced because of the long waiting times and faulty machinery,” said Bloom, who added that the hospital was also in need of 44 radiation therapists.

There are currently 164 posts needed within Steve Biko hospital’s cancer department, he told Health-e.