Blending 4IR technology and holistic approaches to health, the future of personalised and predictive ‘Wellcare’ comes to Cape Town and Johannesburg
InUversal Group, a health and biotech market disruptor in Africa and the Middle East that is transforming the way we think about healthcare, medicine and hospitals, is set to open next-gen medical and wellness hubs in Cape Town this December 2023 and a monumental R1 Billion Development in Sandton, Johannesburg, to follow in 2024. These visionary, state-of-the-art health and wellness facilities are designed to embrace the holistic nature of individuals’ wellbeing, emphasising the intricate interplay of biological, social and psychological facets.
Comprising a team of esteemed medical experts working collaboratively to transform disease treatment through innovative and holistic strategies, the InUversal Group is committed to alleviating South Africa and Africa’s healthcare challenges through the application of 4IR technology that is set to improve healthcare accessibility and standards for individuals across the continent. As an increasing number of international visitors travel the globe in search of medical treatments, the InUversal Group is committed to making South Africa’s major metropolises, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, the go-to destinations for personalised Wellcare – a term coined by the group that is anticipatory in nature and requires a holistic approach to health.
Wellcare harnesses proven strategies to attain an optimal and healthy balance between individuals’ health, time, and finances, ensuring that they can lead healthier, happier and more fulfilling lives. This ambitious endeavour aligns with South Africa’s reputation as a hub for medical tourism, offering world-class medical services, competitive pricing, and a rich cultural and immersive experience.
The Institute of Universal Wellcare (InUWell) will be based in the heart of Cape Town at the prestigious V&A Waterfront Mall and is the first of its kind – a digitally-immersed, multidisciplinary institute of holistic health and wellbeing in a warm and welcoming retail environment. InUWell’s versatile multifunctional design, and forward-thinking commitment to radical sustainability, offers an unparalleled experience that is a seamless blend of physical and digital realms. The Institute is set over 2000 square metres and is considered to be the heart of “Wellcare.”
This festive season, InUWell is opening its doors to immersive health and wellness experiences where individuals are invited to learn more about health and well-being, while exploring and having fun in an engaging, euphoric, multi-sensory environment as they connect and share memorable moments with friends and family.
InUWell provides a diverse range of services including DNA genetic testing, comprehensive health screenings and diagnostics, specialised treatments and therapies, Wellcare lifestyle products and services, active health studios, multisensory immersive experiences and a digital health bank with evidence-based healthcare insights.
“The InUversal Group is an ecosystem shifting and stretching boundaries, creating connections, taking complex intricate life decisions and making them SIMPLE,” says Dr Kamlen Pillay, Founder and CEO of the InUversal Group and Plastic Surgeon. “InUWell, under the InUversal Group, is a single destination for all your health and wellness needs. It is the perfect place to learn about your body and how to take care of it, to access the latest technology and treatments and therapies, and to connect with other people who are on the same journey,” says Dr Pillay.
“The InUversal Group’s WellCare Programmes empower individuals of all generations to take precise, proactive, and preventative measures, not only to extend the quantity of years in our lives but also to infuse more vitality and quality into those years,” says Dr Pillay.
The Group is launching several innovative health technology products which will enter the market early next year, including the Johannesburg facility called SIM Sandton, that is unique in Africa and will host a 5* hotel, InUWell Precinct, Step-Down Facility as well as a multi-disciplinary Surgical Theatre Complex with more than 20 of Johannesburg’s top specialists.
Working with esteemed medical specialists, leading MedTech equipment and companies, and lifestyle and wellness retail brand partners, the InUversal Group invites potential collaborators to join the vanguard of companies and brands helping to shape the future of health and Wellcare practices in Africa and globally, with the shared mission of enhancing the well-being of countless individuals.
“Imagine a world where every man, woman and child has the agency over three valuable assets – their health, time and money. A world where every person has the dignity of choice where they live, work and play. A world where hospitals are not places we go to when we are sick but rather to stay healthy. Imagine a world where hospitals are for profits but not for profiteering. A world where each day, each and every one of us, uses our energy collectively to leave the world in a slightly better place than we found it, the day before,” concludes Dr Pillay.
To get involved or find out more information, visit: inuwell.global or contact email@example.com to book an appointment. InUWell Cape Town will officially be opening its doors on 19 December 2023.
Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital (NCBMH) has earned a prestigious five-star rating from the City of Cape Town’s Water and Sanitation Directorate, joining the esteemed ranks of organisations dedicated to water sustainability. The accolade underscores NCBMH’s commitment to responsible water management.
The City of Cape Town’s Water Star Rating Certification Awards acknowledged NCBMH’s dedication to best water use, supply, conservation and discharge practices. This recognition aligns with the hospital’s ongoing efforts to champion prudent and sustainable management of natural resources, supporting water-sensitive urban living.
“We are proud to be part of a community leading the charge in climate-smart healthcare transformation and are committed to playing a proactive role in averting a potential water crisis in Cape Town and across South Africa,” said André Nortje, Netcare’s environmental sustainability manager.
Nortje emphasised Netcare’s dedication to minimising environmental impact: “Our commitment extends beyond accolades. Efforts to conserve water, reduce waste and save electricity should be high on every South African’s agenda, and we are committed to doing our part to drive sustainability.”
NCBMH’s water conservation initiatives include a sophisticated greywater harvesting system, as well as a desalination plant capable of providing the entire facility’s water needs. These initiatives, as well as the installation of low-flow showerheads and aerator-equipped taps throughout the hospital, can achieve water savings of approximately 60 000 kilolitres for the facility per annum. The hospital’s desalination plant, installed in 2019, also has the filtration capacity to support all Netcare facilities in the City of Cape Town in a disaster situation.
Netcare achieved a 23% reduction in water consumption at Group level between 2014 and 2020. Nortje outlined the 2030 aim to further reduce the company’s impact on the natural potable water sources by implementing grey- and black-water recycling projects within selected facilities.
The company’s sustainability strategy, initiated in 2013, addresses electricity use, waste reduction, and water management. The Group aims to further reduce its impact on water sources by an additional 20% from the 2020 baseline. The strategy includes efficient equipment deployment, the evaluation of greywater and blackwater treatment for potable water and an operational efficiency drive.
“We believe every business should be a good corporate citizen contributing to our country’s future. At Netcare, we want to show South Africa and the world that sustainability is possible and that YOU can make a difference. The certification allows us to showcase our efforts to inspire businesses around us to join in the fight against wastage,” concluded Nortje.
One of the primary chlorine disinfectants currently used for hospital infection control does not kill off spores of the notorious cause of hospital-acquired infection Clostridioides difficile, according to a new study published in the journal Microbiology.
Research by the University of Plymouth has shown that C. Diff spores are completely unaffected despite being treated with high concentrations of bleach used in many hospitals.
In fact, the chlorine chemicals are no more effective at damaging the spores when used as a surface disinfectant – than using water with no additives.
The study’s authors say susceptible people working and being treated in clinical settings might be unknowingly placed at risk of contracting the superbug.
As a result, and with incidence of biocide overuse only serving to fuel rises in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) worldwide, they have called for urgent research to find alternative strategies to disinfect C. diff spores in order to break the chain of transmission in clinical environments.
Dr Tina Joshi, Associate Professor in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Plymouth, carried out the study with Humaira Ahmed, a fourth year Medicine student from the University’s Peninsula Medical School.
Dr Joshi, said: “With incidence of anti-microbial resistance on the rise, the threat posed by superbugs to human health is increasing. But far from demonstrating that our clinical environments are clean and safe for staff and patients, this study highlights the ability of C. diff spores to tolerate disinfection at in-use and recommended active chlorine concentrations. It shows we need disinfectants, and guidelines, that are fit for purpose and work in line with bacterial evolution, and the research should have significant impact on current disinfection protocols in the medical field globally.”
C. diff causes diarrhoea, colitis and other bowel complications, causing around 29 000 deaths per year in the USA, and almost 8500 in Europe, with the most recent data showing that, in the UK, incidence of C. diff infection was increasing prior to the start of the COVID pandemic.
Previously, Dr Joshi and colleagues had demonstrated the ability of C. diff spores to survive exposure to recommended concentrations of sodium dichloroisocyanurate in liquid form and within personal protective fabrics such as surgical gowns.
The new study examined spore response of three different strains of C. diff to three clinical in-use concentrations of sodium hypochlorite. The spores were then spiked onto surgical scrubs and patient gowns, examined using scanning electron microscopes to establish if there were any morphological changes to the outer spore coat.
Dr Joshi, who is on the Microbiology Society Council and Co-Chairs their Impact & Influence Committee, added: “Understanding how these spores and disinfectants interact is integral to practical management of C. diff infection and reducing the burden of infection in healthcare settings. However, there are still unanswered questions regarding the extent of biocide tolerance within C. diff and whether it is affected by antibiotic co-tolerance. With AMR increasing globally, the need to find those answers – both for C. diff and other superbugs – has never been more pressing.”
For the year ended 30 September 2023, the Netcare Group’s profit after tax and exceptional items increased by 27.2% to R1 336 million (FY 2022: R1 050 million) and adjusted HEPS increased by 27.0% to 105.7 cents (FY 2022: 83.2 cents). A sustained improvement in activity, off a largely organic base, supported revenue growth of 9.5%. Coupled with tight cost control notwithstanding the high inflationary environment, this has resulted in excellent operating leverage, reflected in the 23.9% growth in operating profit.
Group chief executive officer, Dr Richard Friedland commented, “We are encouraged by the ongoing normalisation and resilient demand for private healthcare services, allowing the Group to continue on the solid trajectory reported during the first half of this past financial year.”
Total paid patient days (PPDs), inclusive of acute and mental health, increased by 6.7% with improved occupancies of 64.4% for FY 2023 (FY 2022: 60.1%).
Dr Friedland continued, “It is also very pleasing that we have made excellent progress in implementing our key strategic projects. The CareOn digitisation project is nearing completion and has been successfully rolled out at 38 acute hospitals to date, covering 90% of beds. The project is delivering tangible benefits for patients across the Netcare ecosystem, and the gross financial benefits of R104 million in FY 2023 have exceeded expectations.”
Similarly, Netcare’s environmental sustainability strategy continued to deliver financial savings and plays a pivotal role in reducing exposure to the impacts of the instability of the national electricity grid. In line with the 2030 sustainability strategy, the Group concluded an agreement for a renewable energy (RE) supply arrangement with NOA Group Trading, a renewable energy trader. This agreement will increase the proportion of Netcare’s total energy consumption derived from RE sources to c26% and represents an important step towards Netcare’s goal of achieving 100% reliance on RE sources by 2030. Netcare is currently exploring further grid-wheeling opportunities that will potentially increase RE-derived energy to c.40%.
In order to address the growing demand for mental healthcare services in South Africa, Netcare successfully commissioned Netcare Akeso Gqeberha (72 beds) in May 2023. Sales of NetcarePlus products to the retail and corporate segments continue to gain traction, contributing to the Netcare ecosystem through increased access to private healthcare beyond traditional medical schemes and the increased use of its services. Netcare Diagnostics progressed with the rollout of validated and quality assured point of care devices across Netcare’s intensive and high care units, theatres and emergency departments as well as Medicross medical and dental centres.
Dr Friedland said, “We remain committed to our Consistency of Care strategy, broadening the measurement of clinical outcomes and patient experience to ensure we deliver on our core purpose of providing the best and safest care to our patients.”
Cash generated from operations was strong, increasing to R4 135 million (FY 2022: R3 950 million), and the cash conversion ratio amounted to 100.5% (FY 2022: 113.0%). In line with the capital allocation strategy of returning excess cash to shareholders, the Group executed a share buyback programme that, collectively, entailed the repurchase of 33.7 million shares at a cost of R444 million.
Similarly, in line with the dividend policy, which aims to provide shareholders with a sustainable dividend of 50% – 70% of earnings, the Board declared a final dividend of 35.0 cents per share. This, together with an interim dividend of 30.0 cents per share represents 61.5 % of adjusted HEPS and an increase of 30.0% over FY 2022.
Netcare is encouraged by the ongoing improvement in the Group’s financial performance as demand continues to normalise from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The higher activity levels, coupled with ongoing efficiencies, resulted in strong operating leverage and an improvement in Group EBITDA margins of 120 basis points to 17.4%, from 16.2% in FY 2022.
Total capex, including strategic projects, amounted to R1.5 billion for the year, of which R136 million related to expansionary projects, including the completion of construction of the new Netcare Akeso Gqeberha facility and R82 million invested in the hospital digitisation project.
The Group incurred operational costs relating to strategic projects of R258 million (FY 2022: R249 million).
Netcare experienced an average of Stage 3.6 loadshedding across its facilities during the year, resulting in a sharp increase in generator diesel costs to R124 million from R37 million in FY 2022.
At 30 September 2023, the Group‘s cash resources and available undrawn committed facilities amounted to R3.7 billion.
Hospital and emergency services
The segment delivered a steady performance for FY 2023, driven by continued recovery in demand and further normalisation of the post COVID-19 operating environment.
Revenue for the segment increased by 9.6% to R23 050 million (FY 2022: R21 024 million) and total patient days increased by 6.7% to 2 447 494 days in FY 2023 (FY 2022: 2 293 344 days). The steady increase in activity contributed to higher occupancy levels with total occupancy of 64.4% (FY 2022: 60.1%).
Notwithstanding the changes in various networks that were effective from January 2023, a milder flu season and extended vacations by specialists, acute hospital patient days increased by a solid 6.1% against FY 2022, equating to 95.1% of FY 2019 with ICU and high care PPDs being 10.1% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
In line with the trend reported in H1 2023, year-to-date growth in medical PPDs of 8.5% continued to outpace surgical PPD growth of 3.9%. Medical PPDs have recovered to 99.0% of 2019 levels, while surgical PPDs continue to be impacted by sector trends, inter alia, declining maternity cases, as well as an outmigration of lower margin day cases, and have recovered to 91.7% of pre-pandemic levels. Total surgical cases comprised 51.5% of patient days (FY 2022: 52.6%; pre-pandemic levels: 53.4%) and medical cases 48.5% (FY 2022: 47.4%; pre-pandemic levels: 46.6%). Surgical cases continue to contribute more than 70% of revenue.
Demand for mental healthcare remains strong with mental health patient days increasing by 12.7% compared to FY 2022. The newly opened Netcare Akeso Gqeberha facility contributed 2.3% of this growth. Activity has surpassed pre-pandemic levels by 5.4% (same store) and 11.6% inclusive of the 36-bed Netcare Akeso Richards Bay facility (commissioned in May 2022) and the 72-bed Netcare Akeso Gqeberha facility (commissioned in May 2023).
The strong increase in mental healthcare activity has resulted in occupancies improving to 72.7% (73.5% excluding Netcare Akeso Gqeberha) in FY 2023 from 68.1% in FY 2022 (FY 2019: 71.6%).
In 2023, Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital received Level 1 trauma accreditation from the Trauma Society of South Africa, which is aligned to the American Trauma Society accreditation principles. There are only four hospitals in South Africa that have achieved this status, all of which are in the Netcare Group.
Netcare’s geographic footprint, electronic medical records (EMR) offering, and highly accredited facilities, allow the Group to continue attracting specialists and a net 124 doctors were granted admission rights at acute and mental healthcare facilities during FY 2023.
Total GP and dental visits decreased by 3.1% in FY 2023 compared to FY 2022. The decline in visits is predominantly attributable to the higher base in FY 2022, which was boosted by increased COVID-19 GP visits during the Omicron-driven fourth wave. Revenue increased by 4.6% to R663 million. EBITDA margins were adversely impacted by diesel fuel costs.
Netcare has made excellent progress in the implementation of its key strategic projects and is now well placed to benefit from the rapidly changing dynamics driving demand in the healthcare sector.
Digitisation: Significant progress has been made in the implementation of the CareOn hospital EMR offering, which is a major focus of the digitisation strategy. This new way of care has been successfully implemented at 38 of the 45 Netcare hospitals to date, comprising 8 645 beds (90% of registered beds). In addition, over 28 000 healthcare professionals, comprising nurses, doctors, allied health professionals and pharmacists are actively using the system. Rollout to the final seven hospitals (943 beds) will be completed by April 2024. Dr Friedland said, “We remain confident that this investment will create a sustainable competitive advantage for the Group and will prove pivotal in laying the foundations in achieving our strategy of person centred health and care that is digitally enabled and data driven.” Digitisation has now been completed across all ancillary businesses in the Netcare ecosystem spanning across Netcare Akeso, Netcare Medicross, Netcare 911, National Renal Care and Netcare Cancer Care radiotherapy.
Netcare App: Netcare successfully launched its App in July 2023, which represents the next phase of the strategy to enable digital engagement with patients and clients. There has been a robust take-up of this App, which allows online pre-admissions, doctor appointments, the ability for Netcare 911 to geolocate someone in an emergency, access to a Summary of Care, and the ability to purchase NetcarePlus policies, with further services to be added in future.
Promoting access to healthcare: NetcarePlus has a portfolio of innovative healthcare products and funding solutions that promote access to affordable, quality healthcare in South Africa. In FY 2023, Netcare launched additional pre-paid procedures, completed enhancements to NetcarePlus GapCare and NetcarePlus Accident Cover, and also launched a new primary care offering.
Netcare Diagnostics: Netcare Diagnostics, which supports a Black female owned pathology service provider, Dr Esihle Nomlomo Inc., is gaining traction and made a positive contribution to EBITDA. The first stage rollout of 122 blood gas analysers at Netcare’s intensive care and high care units has been completed, with a further 70 point of care devices commissioned at ten emergency departments. Additionally, the service has been rolled out at ten Medicross facilities to date and will be extended to further sites in FY 2024.
Environmental sustainability: The first phase of the Group’s environmental sustainability strategy commenced in 2013. Since then, energy intensity per bed has reduced by 39%, exceeding the initial 10-year target. Similarly, the Group has exceeded its 2023 financial targets, achieving cumulative operational savings and benefits of more than R1.5 billion to date, yielding an IRR of 40%. In FY 2021, Netcare embarked on the second phase of its strategy, with a primary target of reducing Scope 2 emissions to zero by 2030 and Scope 1 and 3 emissions by a combined 84%. The Group’s 2030 strategy aims to achieve 100% utilisation from renewable sources, with zero waste to landfill and an additional 20% reduction of impact on water sources.
Outlook and guidance
Although the macro environment remains impacted by national power grid load shedding, global supply chain limitations, constrained consumers, and high levels of unemployment, Netcare has a number of measures in place to mitigate these challenges and remains focused on optimising the progress made in FY 2023. Furthermore, the environmental sustainability projects will continue to mitigate the significant escalation in costs associated with increased reliance on diesel powered generators resulting from the instability of the national electricity grid.
Although there has been limited growth in medical scheme membership, the pool of covered lives remains resilient and underscores the sustainable demand for quality private healthcare, which is exacerbated by the growing disease burden and ageing insured population.
For FY 2024, the Group expects revenue growth of between 7.5% and 9.5%. Total patient days are expected to grow by between 2.5% and 3.5% off a largely normalised base. The increased activity will drive further EBITDA margin expansion, improved earnings and a higher ROIC.
Netcare will continue to maintain an optimal capital structure, and the strength of the statement of financial position and the ongoing improvement in operational performance in the underlying businesses will continue to support dividend payments in line with the Group’s dividend policy. Netcare will also continue to return excess cash to shareholders by way of share buybacks or special dividends.
Dr Friedland concluded, “We are confident that our strategy remains relevant, and we are firmly committed to realising growth opportunities, improving returns and the successful execution and completion of our key strategic projects. Notwithstanding the fluid economic environment, we expect ongoing improvements in the operational and financial performance of the business in FY 2024 and beyond.”
A realistic update on the amount of funds lost to fraud, waste and abuse in the South African healthcare environment as well as a special address dedicated to the value and protection of whistle blowers will lead discussions during the annual Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF) Healthcare Forensic Management Unit (HFMU) Fraud, Waste and Abuse (FWA) Indaba at The Houghton in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 22 November.
Convened to coincide with International Fraud Awareness Week and to be moderated by BHF Forensic Unit chair, Dr Hleli Nhlapo, the Indaba spotlight will be on “Strengthening a Culture of Integrity and Accountability – New Strategies for a Corruption Resistant Future “ – subject of the keynote address.
The event will once again endorse the BHF’s representative role as a guardian of the interests of medical schemes, administrators and managed care organisations not only in South Africa but also Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi and eSwatini.
To this end an unprecedented feature this year will be a panel discussion by Southern African Development Community (SADC) members on strengthening anti-corruption efforts in the SADC Region with cross-border co-operation.
“Promoting the culture of whistle blowing and the protection of whistle blowers” will be a significant key point on the Indaba agenda with the promise of a lively discussion on the encouragement of whistle blowing with the non-negotiable proviso that specific mechanisms should be put in place for corruption reporting without repercussions.
Until last year fraud, waste and abuse losses in South Africa were generally estimated at just under the R30-billion mark, but as pointed out by the Special Investigating Unit’s Advocate Andy Mothibi at the BHF Conference earlier this year, this figure was likely to be a lot higher.
Fraudulent activities relating to false claims was still a major contributing factor to these losses, he explained, alluding to an observation that anything between 5% and 15% of all medical aid claims could include elements of FWA.
Spurious activities in this regard will no doubt emerge in some of the answers to the Indaba agenda question “Is there ‘Rent Seeking’ in our Healthcare System?” – “rent seeking” being an economic term for an individual who or an entity which seeks to increase their own wealth without creating any benefits or wealth by activities which aim to obtain financial gains and benefits through the manipulation of the distribution of economic resources.
In the same vein, the discussion on “Cracking the Code: Uncovering and Combating Organized Crime Networks in Healthcare”, should shed light on current FWA challenges followed by collaborative measures to counter these such as the use of the HMFU FWA portal introduced four years ago with the prime objective of combating healthcare fraud, waste, and abuse.
Another important element of FWA which has risen to the fore particularly since the successes of the SIU, has been the recovery of lost funds. This will be the focal point of a presentation “Navigating the Road to Restitution: Strategies for Successful Civil Claims Recovery in Healthcare” during which a series of steps to recover losses from wrongdoing or fraud in healthcare are scheduled to be presented.
Going by previous deliberations on the topic, these are likely to emphasise the need for a dedicated legal team with healthcare law and fraud recovery expertise and a commitment to justice for fraud and misconduct victims.
The day’s proceedings will conclude with the SADC member panel discussion on “Cross border Co-operation: Strengthening Anti-Corruption Efforts in the SADC Region”.
Members are expected to deal with important issues such as, not least, the protection of whistle blowers, as well as encouraging healthcare workers in their specific countries to report corruption risk-free with the promotion of law enforcement capabilities and related awareness campaigns.
Already long surgical waiting lists in the Northern Cape appear to have ballooned in recent months. In May, the province’s MEC for Health Maruping Lekwene told the province’s legislature that surgical waiting lists in the province stood at just under 4000. According to more recent figures from the Northern Cape Department of Health’s 2023/24 First Quarterly report, the surgical backlog stands at 6373 – an increase of more than 50% on the figure given in May.
Lulu Mxekezo, Northern Cape Department of Health Spokesperson, confirmed to Spotlight last week that the surgical backlogs had indeed increased from around 4000 to around 6000. She said that the numbers fluctuate as the need continues to increase on a daily basis.
“The shortage of specialised theatre staff makes it impossible for us to utilise all theatres daily to perform the procedures,” said Mxekezo, adding that the department will not compromise the safety and lives of patients and operate in theatres with no specialised theatre staff.
The increase in the backlog came despite the outsourcing of some surgical services in the province. Lekwene told the legislature that the Northern Cape Department of Health pays Gauteng-based Medicomed (captured as Medicore-Mets in the legislature minutes) R400 000 per month to assist with orthopaedic surgeries at Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (RMS) Hospital in Kimberly on a month-to-month basis. He said the company supplies the department with specialised theatre nurses which is a scarce skill in the province. In May, Lekwene told legislators that the company had assisted with 57 surgeries over a two-week period.
Lack of theatre staff
The quarterly report stated that the backlog is fuelled by the lack of theatre staff at RMS hospital, and that the private sector was called in to fill this gap.
When asked by Izak Fritz, Democratic Alliance member of the Provincial Legislature, why the department does not appoint specialist nurses instead of outsourcing these services, Lekwene answered that there are unfortunately not enough theatre specialist nurses in the province.
“For us to take this route, it means that we need to have internal capacity. For instance we will have a neurosurgeon but we will not have an anaesthetist. We have nurses, but we do not have theatre specialist nurses,” he said.
He said they do not enjoy outsourcing, but that because of the urgency and the growing backlog the department has to act swiftly. “However as soon as the backlog has been reduced, we will then try to use our internal staff,” he said.
Lekwene also told the legislature that the backlog was mostly caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. “Remember that for two years during Covid-19, hospitals were closed,” he said.
Some workers at RMS said the long waiting list has left many patients frustrated and stranded. One doctor described the situation to Spotlight as “dire”. “The hospital has four fully equipped theatres but patients do not get help,” he said. He asked not to be named for fear of losing his job.
“Yes, we do have a shortage of nurses, but it is not as bad as they say. We are available as doctors, but without the help from nurses we are unable to perform surgeries at all,” he said.
The doctor said that currently the list of patients that need to receive emergency surgery is longer than 30. He said that for ordinary surgeries such as hip replacements there are patients who have been in hospital for more than 18 months, while some have been waiting for cataract surgery for five years.
A strain on staff and patients
Dennis Segano, provincial chairperson of Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union in South Africa (HOSPERSA) said the surgery backlog is putting a strain on both nurses and patients.
He said the main problems that they see at RMS is the shortage of specialised theatre nurses and a lack of equipment. “When you enter the theatres there are enough doctors but not enough nurses,” he said. “We have a problem with our theatre nurses who are often outsourced by the service provider to work during their surgery marathons at the RMS hospital but have to wait three months or sometimes even six months before they can get paid.”
Spotlight asked Mxekezo about the late payment allegations but had not received a response by the time of publication.
“We don’t know why the government is not appointing the nurses instead of paying a service provider,” Segano said. “The system is burdened, the nurses in orthopaedic wards are burdened and we feel sad for the patients who have to spend months in hospital. “As a patient when you have a fracture, you must be able to go to theatre immediately, but in this province, you have to wait months before you receive help.”
“Stakeholders are also assisting us in performing theatre marathons to deal with the backlog,” Mxekezo said.
For example, in October last year, disaster relief organisation Gift of the Givers sent a team of theatre nurses and anaesthetists to assist with the backlog at RMS. According to Ali Sablay, the organisations project manager, they performed 72 operations on 72 patients during the catch-up drive.
When asked what the department’s long-term plans are to reduce the pressure, Mxekezo explained that the operationalisation of theatres in district hospitals with specialised theatre staff will assist in minimising the backlog at RMS as many patients are transferred from districts.
Segano agreed that a long-term solution is to equip district hospitals with decent theatres and specialised theatre nurses.
“Minor fractures must be dealt with at district hospitals. RMS Hospital must only perform serious surgeries,” he said. “If the department can prioritise Harry Surtie Hospital and De Aar Hospital with theatre staff and equipment, RMS Hospital will operate much better and the patients will be helped. It is incorrect to send all patients of the Northern Cape to one hospital in Kimberly. They will not succeed.”
“Permanent employment of theatre staff will also assist in stabilising the surgical backlogs,” Mxekezo said.
Fritz told Spotlight the DA is very concerned about the growing backlog in the Northern Cape and that they have repeatedly highlighted surgery backlogs at the provinces only tertiary facility (RMS).
“When one looks at nursing appointments at the RMS hospital, we see a trend whereby more nurses’ contracts are terminated each year than the amount of nurses who actually get appointed,” he said. “In effect, the hospital only operationalises four of its nine theatres.”
“Despite agreements with private agencies for surgery marathons to help tackle the backlogs, this only has a limited impact because of the inability to operationalise more theatres and to ensure there is an availability of more beds for recovery,” he said.
Fritz said the reality is that the people who require elective surgery often have to wait years to be attended to while their condition progresses. “Only when their case becomes an emergency can they be bumped up the list, and by that time their disease has become worse and their hopes of a full recovery is minimised,” he said.
Wynand Boshoff, the Freedom Front Plus’s (FF+) Northern Cape Provincial Leader, said in an interview with Spotlight last week that the problem with the department is that it is an entity that is riddled with mismanagement and a culture which aims for anything but service delivery.
He said the FF+ is not only approached by patients, but also by doctors on a regular basis who want to leave the health department because of management that he said has completely abandoned services.
“It is clear that more is needed than the appointment of a new minister or a new Head of Department, as the legacy of mismanagement overwhelms individual role players. A comprehensive investigation and steadfast disciplinary action is needed,” he said. “Repeat offenders should not be tolerated in the department, not even in the most humble of positions.”
As Spotlight previously reported, the Northern Cape Department of Health has had several acting heads in the last three years and several senior officials have and are facing charges in court. The current Head of Department is Dr Alastair Kantani, who has been acting in the position since 8 September following the arrests of seven officials, including former head Dr Dion Theys who now occupies the post of Medical Director in the department. In a statement issued by the department on 13 September Lekwene said this action is informed by the constitutional responsibility to ensure relative stability in the delivery of healthcare services in the province.
Describing the rutted gravel road between Butterworth and Tafalofefe District Hospital in the Eastern Cape, Dr Bukiwe Spondo uses the word “terrible” at least eighteen times. Dipping through the Amatole District, the 55-kilometre journey can take several hours. With heavy rain, tractors may be required to dislodge ambulances and often even staff have difficulty getting to work because of the mud.
Since 2007, Spondo and her colleagues have offered a multitude of services at Tafalofefe in the lush but impoverished Centane village. First off, she moved the hospital’s ARV clinic from an out-building to inside the premises – reducing stigma – “because if patients went into that building on the outside, automatically everyone knew,” she says.
In 2012, having observed how patients stopped taking treatment due to travel costs, she started driving up to 40 kilometres a day twice weekly to nine clinics in the area, where up to fifty patients would be queuing to see her. To make life easier for patients, she started pre-packing medication to take to them at the clinics. Later she opened a CHAMP (Clinical HIV /AIDS Management Programme) site at Tafalofefe to see complicated cases referred from the clinics, and a multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) review clinic in conjunction with Butterworth Provincial Hospital.
“As a rural doctor, you become a social worker, a pharmacist, a priest – you do everything,” she says, laughing.
Rural doctor of the year
Spondo’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last month at the Rural Doctor’s Association of South Africa (RuDASA’s) annual Rural Health Conference, she received the Rural Doctor of the Year award. RuDASA chairperson Dr Lungile Hobe conferred the award at the event hosted near Chintsa. Spondo is quick to point out that she also won an Amatole District leadership award last year.
Speaking to Spotlight over Zoom, she says, “So the roads here at Centane are terrible. It becomes a challenge to get ambulances through and the chopper cannot fly either when it’s raining. I mean, the other day a truck was stuck, crossing the road so the ambulance couldn’t pass. We had to take a private car from the hospital to go meet the ambulance halfway.”
She adds that the community hoped that roads would be improved after a devastating accident five kilometres from Tafalofefe in 2020 when an overloaded 65-seater bus plunged into a gorge, causing 25 deaths and 62 injuries. But, she says, the improvements never come.
At Tafalofefe, the two nearest referral hospitals are Cecilia Makiwane and Frere Provincial in East London, situated an additional 110 kilometres or 90-minute drive from Butterworth along the N2 highway. Housed in a pale building, Tafalofefe has 160 beds served by 41 professional nurses and seven doctors – including three community service doctors who joined last year. The additions have increased capacity, for example, emergency caesareans are now available around the clock.
Taking healthcare to the people
The hospital has three 4×4 bakkies [pick-ups] for visiting or transporting patients. It is in one of these that Spondo travels to see patients in remote corners between the Kobonqaba and Kei Rivers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Clinics are part of decentralised primary healthcare goals,” she says. “But the problem was that if there were complicated cases – like if a patient is taking ARVs and then develop side effects, the sisters are not equipped to handle that. For example, if there is a kidney problem, they [cannot] do anything about that.
“And in time, I realised that for these people traveling to the hospital costs too much money. Let’s say, for example, the clinic at Qolora – for a person to travel from Qolora to Tafalofefe is R100. A return ticket is R200. And you know, most people here are unemployed. They can’t afford this. By the time they have saved up enough money to travel to the hospital, it’s too late. Like it would be the end stage of their kidney problem. You could not send this patient for dialysis, nothing could be done to help them. This is why I started my outreach trips.”
In motivating for Spondo to receive the RuDASA award, Tafalofefe’s CEO Masizakhe Madlebe pointed out how her work days start at 7am, only finishing once all patients had been seen, whether at the hospital or at one of the local clinics. In addition, he notes how, over the years, Spondo has mentored youth in the area, including children whose parents had succumbed to AIDS, and school girls on topics like life goals and contraceptives. He adds that Spondo even reached into her own pocket to pay school fees for children without parents.
Spondo relays how she noticed girls as young as twelve years old in their maternity ward, giving birth. “Myself and some nurses we went to two schools in the area to educate them, to discuss goals and contraceptives,” she says. “We started with grade 12 pupils. No teachers were present. It was just us and them. And I was surprised at how free they were talking. I said to them education is more important. I said to them – You see me? I am a doctor. One day you can be a doctor too, but you need to be educated. I told them they could come to Tafalofefe any time if they needed to talk, that I could help them apply for tertiary degrees, to college or to university.”
Spondo has kept a close eye on children orphaned by AIDS in the area. “I tell them to bring me their June, September, and December school reports, so I can see how they’re doing, so I can motivate them,” she says.
“These kids, I’ve seen them grow up. Some of them I saw angry – with everyone, with their own deceased parents. And I explained to them, don’t be angry. It’s not your mother’s fault. It’s not your father’s fault. It was the government’s fault for not giving your parents access to ARVs. But now, take your own ARVs and you will be fine. Some of them have passed high school with distinction, some even now have access to universities.”
Bringing her skills back home
Alongside two brothers whom she describes as “wonderful”, Spondo grew up in the village of Nqamakwe, on the opposite side of Butterworth. Her parents have passed away, but she still considers Nqamakwe her home. Here her family’s farming interests include cattle, goats, and sheep.
She attended Blythswood Secondary School in Nqamakwe – excelling at biology and physics, even though maths was hard work. “Becoming a doctor was just something I always wanted,” she says, relaying how in her formative years she had been a sickly child who often required medical care. This changed, she says, as she cannot remember ever being sick as an adult.
Spondo graduated from medical school at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2002, completing her internship at Cecilia Makiwane and her community service at Tafalofefe and Frere in 2004.
Speaking with rapid enthusiasm, she says how happy she is to bring her healthcare skills back home to serve the community that shaped her own humanity.
“I mean, I know these people inside out. I was born in front of them, raised in front of them,” she says. “These are our relatives, our aunts, our grannies. It’s giving back to them, to the community that raised you, that has done everything for you. Who supported you through all these years.”
She adds that Tafalofefe’s clinical manager, Sambona Ntamo, grew up near Butterworth too.
“Who would look after these people if we didn’t?” she asks.
Where does she find the resilience that drives her passion to care for sick people, often queuing at the end of long rutted roads?
“Lots of exercise,” she says, smiling.
At Tafalofefe there is a staff gym with a treadmill, a bicycle, weight lifts, and pilates balls.
“I tell the guys after work it’s gym time, it’s gym time, it’s gym time!” she says. “We’ve got a key and everyone knows that even if they want to go to the gym after midnight, they may get the key and go.”
Photographs capture an air of camaraderie at Tafalofefe. Staff sharing a meal of tripe and creamed spinach on heritage day, a farewell gathering for a retiring nurse with balloons and huge gifts in silver wrapping, [and] women knitting countless bright beanies for babies delivered in the maternity ward. A picture inside the hospital’s paediatric room shows youngsters on plastic motorbikes and mothers holding toddlers wrapped in blankets.
Spondo and her own eight-year-old son, Lutho desperately – which means the greatest one – live in a doctor’s house on the hospital’s premises. They travel to their family home in Nqamakwe over weekends.
For Spondo, being a doctor does not feel like a job. “When you do something you love, it doesn’t feel like a job,” she says. “Being a doctor is something I look forward to every morning. When patients return to me, saying they feel better with a smile on their faces, saying thank you for the treatment – that just makes my day.”
The Department of Health is scrambling to avoid a stand-off with nurses who have threatened to work in their own clothes if a dispute over the provision of uniforms is not resolved.
Since 2005, nurses had received an annual allowance to buy their uniforms. But this ended on 31 March this year, after a new agreement was signed in the Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council in terms of which they would get uniforms instead.
As a result, nurses did not get the usual allowance in April – R2600 a year, according to Spokesperson for the Democratic Nursing Association of SA (DENOSA) Sibongiseni Delihlazo.
Instead, they were supposed to be provided with uniforms by 1 October 2023. The agreement stated that in the first year, government must provide nurses with four sets of uniforms, one pair of shoes, and one jersey. In the second year, government must provide three sets of uniforms, one belt, and one jacket.
The plan was that the procurement process would be centralised. But at another bargaining council meeting, in June 2023, the health department said it would be difficult to provide the uniforms on time.
Then on 12 July, Sandile Buthelezi, director-general for the DOH, issued a circular to all provincial health departments notifying them that the uniforms would be provided from January 2024 to January 2025.
The circular stated that the DOH would use a decentralised approach to providing uniforms by using provincial tenders.
“Provincial heads are responsible for participating and facilitating in tender processes through the bid specification in terms of colour, fabric composition and garment, development, review of the policy and monitoring and evaluation,” Buthelezi wrote.
Until January 2026, the circular said, nurses would be expected to wear the new uniform from Monday to Thursday and wear their old uniform from Friday to Sunday. From January 2026, when they would have both years’ issue, nurses would be expected to wear the new uniforms every day.
DENOSA responded to this a week later, and said the department’s circular went against the bargaining agreement.
Delihlazo said they proposed that if the department is unable to supply the uniform by 1 October, they must pay nurses an allowance as previously.
If the department failed to provide uniforms or pay an allowance, DENOSA said, its 84 000 members would embark on an indefinite protest action by wearing their own clothes to work from 1 October.
Delihlazo said the yearly allowance did not cover the cost of a full uniform. “Their uniforms are tearing and the colour is fading. So how can you expect nurses to wear uniforms if you don’t pay them a uniform allowance?”
He said the tender process meant the colour of the nurses’ uniforms and the quality of the fabrics might differ from one province to the next. The process also “opens a window of opportunity for corruption,” Delihlazo said. “Money may be given for uniforms but the tender process is porous.”.
Then, at a last-minute meeting of the bargaining council last Thursday, the department proposed to put on hold the supply of uniforms until 2024, according to a DENOSA statement. Meanwhile the health department would pay nurses an allowance of R3,153 by 30 November.
DENOSA said the agreement should be signed by the end of the week. If not, the union said, nurses would work in their own clothes.
The health department did not respond to GroundUp’s questions.
Netcare well on track with environmental strategy targets
In a tangible step towards further reducing its carbon footprint, the Netcare Group has successfully agreed commercial terms for a Renewable Energy (RE) Supply Agreement with independent clean energy solutions provider NOA Group Trading (NOA).
Netcare chief executive officer Dr Richard Friedland noted that the development is a significant milestone in realising the Group’s environmental sustainability strategy, which has made considerable strides since its implementation in 2013.
“Improvement of our energy efficiency initiatives remains a key focus area of this strategy. Netcare has also committed to procuring 100% of its purchased electrical energy from renewable energy sources by 2030, supporting the Race to Zero global campaign with targets that exceed the requirements of the Science Based Target initiative (SBTi) aimed at limiting global warming.
“This transaction represents Phase 1 of achieving this aim and includes six of our facilities where RE will be wheeled through the electricity grid from a combination of wind and solar farms, covering up to 100% of energy consumption at these facilities. This represents approximately 11% of the Group’s total energy consumption which is currently being supplied by Eskom’s predominantly coal fired power stations.
“In combination with other initiatives already implemented under Netcare’s sustainability programme, this transaction will increase the proportion of Netcare’s total energy consumption that is derived from RE sources to around 26%,” he says.
Dr Friedland noted that Netcare’s management teams are actively working towards finding viable solutions to supply RE to the remaining municipal-connected sites in the Group while continuing to build on existing renewable energy initiatives. The Group’s environmental sustainability programme also continues to demonstrate an impressive return on investment to date, illustrating the commercial opportunities in environmentally conscious engineering.
According to Karel Cornelissen, chief executive officer of NOA Group, renewable energy will be wheeled through the national grid to the six designated Netcare facilities via the existing Eskom distribution transmission network and delivery of renewable energy to these facilities is expected to commence by the first quarter of 2026. “The agreement represents a significant step towards a clean-energy future by one of South Africa’s healthcare industry leaders, and we are pleased to partner with Netcare on this crucial advancement,” he says.
Netcare joined the Race to Zero global campaign in 2021 and was the first healthcare institution in Africa to do so. The campaign strives to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions and investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.
“The devastation of climate change to the environment and among communities is already resulting in enormous hardship and tragedy not only in South Africa but around the world. We cannot sit idly by while this happens. Urgent action must be taken by implementing innovative solutions,” says Dr Friedland.
“During the past decade, Netcare has actively been engaged in several planned energy, waste and water management initiatives. This meaningful transaction is yet another step towards implementing appropriate green solutions while contributing towards a healthier environment for the people of South Africa in the decades to come and beyond,” he concludes.
As of the 1st of September 2023, the Hospice Palliative Care Association (HPCA) is known as the Association of Palliative Care Centres (APCC).
“This rebranding is not just a visual change,” says Ewa Skowronska, CEO of the APCC. “It is an important message to all medical professionals and the public that our members (many of whom still refer to themselves as hospices) offer quality, specialised and expert palliative care services. Too many people equate hospice with end-of-life only and many medical professionals refer very late. This leads to thousands of patients, and their loved ones, missing out on the holistic support that palliative care provides – support that, ideally, should be from diagnosis of a life-threatening illness and not solely in the last few days of life.”
The rebrand includes a new logo element that reflects that palliative care can be provided alongside curative treatments and into end-of-life care, including bereavement support (if needed).
“Our members adhere to the Standards for Palliative Healthcare Services, 4th edition, 2020 approved by the Council for Health Service Accreditation of South Africa (COHSASA) and the International Society for Quality in Health Care (ISQua),” says Leigh Meinert, Advocacy and Operations Manager of APCC. “This is important as sometimes there is a perception that our members are only servicing patients who do not have private healthcare support and might not be at the same level as private organisations. In reality, they have decades of palliative care experience, and compliance with these Standards ensures an ongoing level of excellence.”
As much as 90% of APCC member’s services are provided to the patient in the comfort of their own home. The patient’s loved ones are also supported by way of an interdisciplinary team. Such a team typically consists of a medical doctor, nurse, social worker, and home-based carers who can work alongside the patient’s healthcare professional and support quality of life.
Palliative care covers conditions such as HIV/AIDS, drug-resistant TB, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular and neuromuscular diseases, MND and more. “Both adults and children are catered for,” says Meinert. “While patients can move in and out of a palliative care service, they may remain beneficiaries of the services for as long as they (or their loved ones) need or wish to. Patients may be discharged from the service if they are doing well and able to function independently. This is always negotiated between the patient, family, and members of the care team. We encourage patients to engage with an APCC member from the point of diagnosis as this helps to dispel fears and provides insight into the holistic services that can be offered. We believe that all patients have benefitted from an improved quality of life through the supportive care received from APCC members.”
“APCC has a cloud-based patient care monitoring, evaluation and reporting system able to report in detail on interventions given to any patient,” says Skowronska. “Our members are comfortable working alongside the primary clinician or specialist. They can provide a supportive extension of care to the patient and their loved ones and, in most cases, the APCC members inter-disciplinary teams collaborate and work alongside the referring doctors who are treating the patient. They also provide supportive care to the patient’s loved ones. This may include advanced healthcare planning, as well as psychosocial and spiritual support.”
“Our palliative care definition says it all,” concludes Meinert. “Palliative care is the physical, psychological, social and spiritual care provided by an interdisciplinary team of experts to anyone with a life-threatening illness and their loved ones. Care is offered from the point of diagnosis and extends to bereavement support if needed. Over 90% of the care that APCC members provide is home-based with a focus on promoting quality of life.
We sincerely hope that this rebranding results in more people receiving the support that they so desperately need during some of the most difficult times in a person’s life.”