Staffing crisis, broken machines mar functioning of hospital’s Oncology department

By Nkateko Mabasa 8 June 2018

Professor Vinay Sharma, head of the Radiation Oncology department, stands beneath a radiation machine at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital with members from the South African Human Rights Commission, hospital CEO Gladys Bogoshi and provincial manager Buang Jones, 7 June 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

A site inspection by the South African Human Rights Commission at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital oncology department has painted a worrying picture of the public hospital's service... it’s functional, but only just.

Nearly 500 cancer patients are said to be waiting for cancer treatment at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. But they are unlikely to receive it any time soon as the hospital’s oncology unit is dealing with a staffing crisis and broken radiation machines.

It was this claim coupled with reports that the oncology department was on the verge of collapse that prompted the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to visit the hospital.

In light of these allegations, the commission “commenced its own initiative investigation in order to test the veracity of the said allegation”, said SAHRC provincial manager, Buang Jones, in a statement.

The visit comes a week after workers at the Johannesburg hospital protested by blocking entrances with burning debris, throwing rubbish around and turning patients away, unattended and untreated.

Staff – doctors, nurses, cleaners and general workers – went on strike on Thursday to demand payment of their performance bonuses for the 2016/2017 financial year.

It also follows an earlier visit on Monday to the Steve Biko Academic Hospital for an oversight inspection after similar allegations of a dysfunctional oncology unit surfaced.

Despite the claims of a dysfunctional unit at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, the unit was functioning normally when the SAHRC visited on Wednesday.

According to the hospital’s CEO, Gladys Bogoshi, the unit has treated 3,189 cancer patients – including 1,330 breast, 1,508 cervical and 368 lung, head and neck cancers – from April to May.

She said the main challenges the hospital faces include old and worn-out machines that have reached their lifespan.

One machine is due (to be replaced) this year and another will have to be replaced in 2019,” said Bogoshi.

Some of units were relocated from Hillbrow hospital when it closed in 2006,” said Bogoshi.

All the machines were installed by Siemens, an appliance company which no longer makes radiation machines in the country, but the hospital has a longstanding agreement for the company to maintain and fix them when needed.

We have a maintenance contract with Siemens which ends in 2022,” said Bogoshi.

The hospital has been struggling to fill two vacancies for oncologists. With three full-time doctors in the department, the CEO acknowledged the strain these vacancies put on the staff, saying many worked late at night to help patients.

We have tried everything. We have put the post in international radiation journals but no one is interested in a full-time position,” said Bogoshi.

Jones praised the hospital for the work they do with the limited resources. He acknowledged the challenges the hospital was facing, and said further research would be done by the SAHRC to find solutions to the situation.

We still have to make a proper and comparative assessment,” said Jones.

Although the situation seemed grim, Bogoshi reassured the SAHRC that the department is not on the verge of collapse as reports have alleged.

I would not call it a crisis because they are doing their job and are working. It would be a crisis if patients were not receiving any treatment,” said Bogoshi.

The Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, came under fire in recent weeks after making statements that denied the true state of the public health system.

The Office of the Health Standards Compliance (OHSC) tabled a scathing report in Parliament which revealed that only five of the 696 hospitals and clinics it inspected in 2016/2017 complied with the department of health’s norms and standards. This heavily affects the standard of care patients receive.

The minister later conceded that the department faced some challenges, including overcrowding, a shortage of skilled practitioners, old infrastructure and stretched finances. DM


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