Doctors and nurses in the Free State and North West have accused Buthelezi EMS, the private company contracted to run provincial ambulance services, of operating like a minibus taxi and “drop and go” service. They accuse the company of providing limited medical support and expertise during transport, leaving the desperately sick and injured, including babies, unassisted and putting people’s lives at risk.
Buthelezi EMS has landed lucrative state tenders worth hundreds of millions to run hospital and clinic transfer services in the Free State and North West. Last week Spotlight reported that Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi had asked Treasury to investigate the procurement of Buthelezi EMS’s services in the two provinces. This is in addition to a Hawks investigation and a forensic investigation instituted by North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo.
Nurses and doctors have revealed a litany of failures, some life-threatening, with common complaints being extreme waiting times of up to six hours (even when patients, often babies, are critical), overcrowded ambulances, poor staff attitudes, poorly equipped staff on the ambulances and in the call centres, lack of equipment, extremely poor medical skills, no medical care while patients are in transit, and a lack of compassion for patients.
A visit by a Spotlight photographer to the company’s Bloemfontein, Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom ambulance bases, also showed that the services are run from tiny, rented houses with the bare minimum and in some instances dirty, messy yards, not resembling what would be expected of a professional ambulance base.
All the doctors and nurses who spoke to Spotlight asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their government jobs. Names of specific hospitals have also been omitted as it will make it easy to trace the sources.
Patients squashed into ambulances
A senior doctor based at a Free State hospital alleges that Buthelezi EMS often transports multiple patients in a single ambulance. Sometimes as many as five patients will be transported in one ambulance, but Buthelezi will allegedly then bill with five different patient reference numbers as if five ambulances were used and five trips undertaken. This pattern was confirmed by all healthcare workers Spotlight spoke to in both provinces.
One Free State doctor said that it had become the norm for Buthelezi ambulances to arrive at their hospital with several patients squashed inside.
“But we are not allowed to complain, if we do it simply goes nowhere or we are harassed by Buthelezi staff and our patients suffer,” the doctor said.
Another doctor said even if there were sick patients who needed to be transferred to a hospital Buthelezi ambulances would not transport the patient, but wait for the vehicle to first fill up.
The overloading of ambulances could also at times place patients at risk and infringe on the dignity of patients. Spotlight was for example told of an instance where a woman with birth complications had to share the back of the ambulance with a male patient not known to her. In another instance a patient with a broken leg had to ride in the front of the ambulance because the back was full. At other times, patients who could safely be transported in cars are transported at great cost in ambulances.
Lack of skills and equipment
A North West trauma nurse said she had a case where two severely ill women arrived in the same ambulance. During the handover Buthelezi staff told the nurse that the women both had bleeding complications from their pregnancies. The nurse conducted a pregnancy test on one of the patients after she suspected something else was wrong. The woman was not pregnant and the problem was completely unrelated to what she was told.
The nurse said lack of equipment was a major problem. She said patients almost never arrived with oxygen, drips or connected to any monitoring equipment.
“They mostly don’t have equipment, not IV drips, not drip bags, not saturation monitors (used to measure if patients need oxygen), nothing.”
She said the problem was that Buthelezi staff exercised no medical care or procedures on patients while in transit.
“They’re a taxi service and they are always impatient to drop and go,” she said.
Long waiting times
The nurse said a clinic sister recently had to wait four hours for an ambulance to collect a severely ill new-born baby.
“They run a taxi service, not an EMS service,” said a Free State doctor.
All healthcare workers Spotlight spoke to said that they waited hours for Buthelezi to arrive.
One North West nurse in a large town said they waited on average three to four hours for a Buthelezi ambulance to arrive, even though the hospital is not far away.
“When we contact the call centre, we are not told how long they will take, we are simply made to wait. The staff also mostly have terrible attitudes when they arrive or when we follow up with the call centre to find out where they are,” said the nurse.
The service level agreement (SLA) between the North West Department of Health and Buthelezi EMS explicitly states: “The Service Provider must ensure that its call centre gives the NWDoH a reference number and estimated time of arrival of the ambulance for each call.”
The SLA also sets out a schedule of required response times for different levels of emergency. The longest response time allowed for (for the least serious calls) is 60 minutes (measured from when the call centre receives the call). The SLA states that response times in excess of those on the schedule will result in financial penalties against the service provider. As with most aspects of this contract, it appears these penalties have not been enforced.
A North West nurse said Buthelezi’s ambulance staff are not interested in the handover process.
“They seem to consider themselves to be a taxi service who simply has to transport the patient. I have very rarely had a Buthelezi staff member show any interest in the patient, put up an IV drip, discuss the patient or even take their blood pressure, they don’t even listen when we do the handover,” the nurse said.
She said nobody dared ask for proof of qualifications. This is necessary as certain patients require certain levels of care – for example, Advanced Life Support.
Call centre problems
One nurse said they recently had a new-born baby who was in a critical condition and in respiratory distress. Despite several desperate calls, an ambulance only arrived after three hours.
“When we contact the call centre, they ask us the age of the patient, the gender and what is wrong. I more often than not have to explain to them what the problem is and even then they will tell me they do not understand,” the nurse said.
A doctor said call centre staff often did not understand standard emergency medical terms. When he calls for an ambulance he would as an example not refer to a cranial injury, which is a widely accepted and understood medical term, especially in emergency medicine.
“The call centre does not understand that, I have to just say brain injury. I also cannot say Caesarean section, I have to say – we did an operation for a baby – then the call centre agent kind of understands, sometimes,” the doctor said.
A nurse had the same experience, saying that even after explaining medical conditions to call centre staff they still failed to understand.
Is the motivation money?
The Free State doctor said when they called for an ambulance from the provincial government or other private service providers such as ER24 of Netcare 911, it would take 15 minutes to get a reference number as the handover was meticulous. However, via Buthelezi the reference number is generated within minutes, adding that the motivation was not patient well-being but money.
“We know that 2km trips could be charged at R3 000,” he said, adding that Buthelezi did not have enough ambulances or a presence (with Advanced Life Support paramedics) in sub-districts as required.
The allegation that Buthelezi EMS incorrectly charges thousands of rand for short trips is confirmed by invoices submitted to the North West Department of Health that Spotlight has had sight of (and previously reported on).
Sources inside the North West Department of Health confirmed that Buthelezi EMS only has sufficient advanced life support staff based in five of the 19 sub-districts where they are supposed to have such staff according to the service level agreement with the province.
Apart from this, resulting in advanced life support often being severely delayed, it is also alleged that Buthelezi charges the province for the extra distance advanced life support vehicles and personnel must travel to sub-districts where there is no advanced life support in place. This state of affairs was confirmed by Free State doctors as well.
Spotlight sent a photographer to Buthelezi’s Bloemfontein ambulance base. The base does not have any external signage. The outside of the suburban house in Bloemfontein was in a shocking state with rubbish, mud and a yard full of ambulances, some seemingly no longer in running order. Aerial photographs show a backyard littered with rubbish and no sign of any waste disposal.
Spotlight asked the Free State Department of Health whether they visited and inspected Buthelezi’s ambulance bases. Head of Department David Motau responded: “Sites visits was not a requirement as per the tender document.”
The Potchefstroom “base” is a house which is mostly empty inside, with only a few bare beds used by staff. The backyard of the house has rubbish dumped at the back door. None of ambulance bases appear to have dedicated medical waste areas that are marked biohazardous. Access to these waste areas must be controlled. Unsecured oxygen cylinders are seen lying in the corner of a room. Several horrified paramedics confirmed that oxygen cylinders must be safely locked up and secured. There has to be a sign which cautions that it is pressurised oxygen. The front porch has a derelict bed with no indication that this is a Buthelezi ambulance base. The entrance hall to the house has what appears to be a radio transmitter.
At the Klerksdorp “base” the only sign that it is a depot is two branded ambulances and a car parked in the road.
Mariette Pittaway, Democratic Alliance member of the Free State legislature and spokesperson on health, questioned whether the health department conducted regular checks on Buthelezi operations to ensure compliance with the provision under the National Health Act (No 61 of 2003).
Some of these provisions deal with whether an operator is licensed and whether staff are being supervised by a medical services manager. In terms of the base, the Act prescribes that the operator have sluice facilities for cleaning contaminated equipment and linen, have access to washing facilities, including medical-waste traps, have all the relevant equipment listed in the regulations.
The Potchefstroom base had none of this. The Act also requires for there to be a log stating how many checks were conducted at the base and what were the findings of each.
Responses from Health Departments and Thapelo Buthelezi
Last week Minister Motsoaledi told Spotlight the following in relation to Buthelezi EMS and the Gupta-linked Mediosa:
“On my side as health there is nothing to investigate in terms of whether it is serving the health needs etc. It is very clear, as clear as daylight, that we do not need this type of service.”
Asked about the complaints from healthcare workers, Motau said:
“The department is aware of only one formal complaint from Botshabelo and the matter was resolved. The department is not aware of ambulance (sic) being poorly equipped and overloaded.”
The North West health department has declined to comment to Spotlight on any Buthelezi-related matters, saying the matter is being investigated by the Hawks and the Premier’s office.
In addition to a previous round of questions, Spotlight also sent a list of the above allegations and complaints to Thapelo Buthelezi via email. This was his WhatsApp response:
“There isn’t anything I can assist you with. More especially after you have lied to South Africans that you have published everything I said. I spoke about other provinces utilising aero medical service without any formal contracts and you did not want to say anything about the matter. You are most probably avoiding to talk about that because it will tell South Africa the truth behind all the allegations. It is clear that you are after Buthelezi EMS, hence you can’t talk about other provinces’ aero medical contracts. You may carry on and publish whatever and continue to protect your buddies. This matter is being dealt with from a different platform. I’m also aware that one of your informers, (Spotlight omitted this name), is busy talking to different provinces, recruiting managers to support him in taking Buthelezi EMS down and give you a falsified information. I wish you could report the real events and stop talking to the competitors. It is a common knowledge that the competitors will always give a negative info. However, I still maintain what I said earlier, we are working on publishing the truth and not nonsense you have been telling South Africa. Good luck!!!!!!” DM
Note: While Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, its editors have full editorial independence – independence that the editors guard jealously. Spotlight is a member of the South African Press Council.
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