Maverick Citizen


Helen Joseph doctors speak out – ‘we won’t give up without a fight’

Helen Joseph doctors speak out – ‘we won’t give up without a fight’
Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

The doctors are taking a stand as the ailing Johannesburg hospital – once a world-class facility – faces collapse.

Not in his wildest dreams did *Dr M imagine he would say his hospital should close its doors or stop accepting patients. Never did *Dr O think she’d cancel surgeries because an unmaintained roof has turned theatre floors into soggy swamps. And never did *Dr D imagine she’d advise friends to emigrate if the government were left to manage the National Health Insurance (NHI).

The three doctors, based at Helen Joseph Hospital (HJH), are exhausted and frustrated, but refuse to be beaten down any further. They remain on the frontline of another kind of “pandemic”, they say: it’s a crisis that threatens to collapse public health services in the province, especially at HJH. But they also won’t give up without a fight for a hospital that was at one time a world-class facility, they say. 

Over the past few weeks the three have separately contacted Maverick Citizen, raising the alarm that the public must wake up to mismanagement and incompetence that they believe has allowed the hospital to rush to the brink of dysfunction and collapse. 

It’s midweek, late at night when Dr M spells out in a series of WhatsApp messages some of the things that have gone wrong at the Johannesburg West facility. She has arrived home after another long shift. She’s missed dinner and rolling blackouts have kicked in – but she carries on messaging because she cannot stay silent as the government punts the line that “everything is okay” – it’s not.

Portable toilets have had to be installed at Helen Joseph Hospital because of water interruptions and outages. (Photo: Supplied)

She says that over the past few years already the doctors have been asking for the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) system to be repaired and maintained. It’s not only for the comfort of ill patients, but because a lack of temperature control is potentially dangerous. There is a raised threat of infection, especially in theatres.

“We have to cancel surgeries, or reschedule them because the coolers don’t work properly, and already we are seeing patients returning to the hospital because of sepsis,” she says.

Doctors increasingly had to try to fix problems themselves – buying supplies, mopping floors and using scrubs and medical bins to collect water dripping into the hospital: “Some time ago some of the doctors suggested we club together to get the aircon fixed but management would not allow it. But when we take up our issues with senior management they give us the same old excuse that it’s the responsibility of the Gauteng department of infrastructure and development, not the Gauteng department of health.”

She says it’s a similar situation with ongoing water interruptions and water shortages at the hospital. Already doctors like Dr M are bringing in water daily for himself and some of his patients. As angry and fed-up as he is, it’s still patient welfare that he won’t turn a blind eye to.

‘Hiding problems’

“Helen Joseph management has become obsolete and problems come from the top – from the Gauteng department of health. They are now hiding problems behind city water problems, but the problems are much bigger and there are also other issues that are not related to water. 

“We don’t get much feedback as to what the problems are or why funding that is available is not being used to fix what needs fixing and doctors are left to MacGyver everything to keep working,” he says. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Images reveal how water shedding brings disease and indignity to two major Johannesburg hospitals

The doctor flags other problems and signs of deep rot and mismanagement – perhaps even misappropriation, he says. Doctors are told there is no linen available but the laundry department continues to operate. Doctors are being made to fill out road accident reports even though there is a Road Accident Fund doctor paid to do the job. There are also random repair jobs such as the replacement of unbroken light switches when more urgent problems should take priority.

And there are problems of the autoclaves, used to sterilise surgical and other equipment, not working; equipment and services have not been paid for by the hospital resulting in medicine shortages; access to the PACS (picture archiving and communication system) has been cancelled because subscriptions have not been paid. It means X-rays have to be located and printed out. When they can’t be found, new ones have to be ordered. The hospital has also had to install portable toilets because many indoor toilets no longer function.

Rain coming through into the theatres at Helen Joseph Hospital. Staff try to catch falling rainwater in containers and use scrubs to mop it up. (Screenshot supplied)

“We need to blow the lid off this place. The situation at Helen Joseph should be a national crisis – but this dire issue is just not being discussed. The President has to speak out and have a family meeting to address this issue of our public hospitals,” he says. 

Dr D, who finally finds a late Friday afternoon to chat because long days have turned into a long week, describes how a few weeks ago a patient had to remain in theatre after surgery instead of being taken to ICU, because of a shortage of ICU beds. The patient had to be given post-op care in the theatre, creating a bottleneck for surgeries. 

“We cannot pretend that everything is fine. I remember a rep said to me that 10 years ago HJH’s theatres were on par with those in the private sector, and now these theatres are putting patients’ lives at risk,” says Dr D. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “‘They made her life hell’ – top breast cancer surgeon quits Helen Joseph Hospital, and volunteers follow suit

Patients are waiting a month for emergency surgeries and elective procedures are constantly postponed, she says. 

“Infections can set in and people could lose their limbs or even their lives.”

For Dr D one of the biggest impacts of weakening service delivery at Helen Joseph Hospital is that patients are trusting doctors less and less – even blaming interns when their surgeries are cancelled. She says there are even rumours circulating that patients should bribe doctors to get onto surgery lists. 

They face hostility not just from patients but also senior clinical management who, she says, resort to intimidation and bullying as a management style when they deal with consultants.

“It makes you so despondent. If we do our jobs well then we can heal our patients, but we just don’t have the resources or the support from clinical managers and management to do our jobs,” she says.

The doctor adds that weekly departmental reports submitted to clinical managers never receive any acknowledgment, let alone feedback.

Broken air-conditioning systems mean temperature control is compromised. This picture shows the air-conditioning temperature stuck at a high 27.6°C. (Photo: Supplied)

“There was an HOD who was asked how he is going to sort out a maintenance problem in the hospital, but he’s not a doctor – it’s not his role. We also never see the CEO or senior management on the hospital floor, it should be their job, so they get to understand the day-to-day realities we are facing,” she says.

“The doctors are willing to go the extra mile and they are hard-working, but they can’t go on like this forever and it’s not why we trained to be doctors.”

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

For now, Dr D is determined to carry on fighting and her call is for the public and doctors to lay formal complaints at the hospital.

“I’ve decided to do this even though I have the quality assurance people complaining about it because it’s extra paperwork and they try to scare me off with the extra admin, but I’m not going to stop. I’m also encouraging all the doctors to not leave the public sector and for the public also to make the effort to complain formally because we need to have records of what’s going wrong. 

Read in Daily Maverick

Frontline workers at Helen Joseph Hospital add voices to call for urgent reopening of Charlotte Maxeke

Charlotte Maxeke closure is placing ‘severe strain’ on Helen Joseph

“The public must demand better. And we need people who run this hospital to be fit to do the job – not people who have been demoted and moved around from province to province just so they can keep a job. If they can’t do the job they must go.

“I know the doctors don’t feel like they can’t go on much longer; but we must fight on – because our patients are dying.” 

Hospital response 

CEO of Helen Joseph Hospital Dr Relebohile Ncha responded to Maverick Citizen via Gauteng health department communications. She says the hospital is “not collapsing” but its problems stem from being a 50-year-old building with “ailing infrastructure”, including leaking roofs. Work on the roofs would begin once a contractor was appointed, while work on the HVAC system had already begun. 

Ncha calls this a “recent challenge”, but acknowledges that it has delayed operation. 

“However, claims that there has been an increase in surgical complications due to suboptimal theatre conditions are inaccurate as the current data does not indicate an increase in that regard.” 

Helen Joseph Hospital CEO Dr Relebohile Ncha. (Photo: Julia Evans)

As for the hiccups in radiology, she says the PACS system for X-rays is being upgraded but is “waiting for the finalisations from the provincial structures”. She adds: “We are currently printing X-rays for clinicians, therefore no data is lost and no files are lost.”

She also maintains that there is no shortage of ICU beds, as the facility has 14 of these.

On the issue of communication to staff, Ncha says: “The hospital has always been transparent with sharing of information to all staff members. Challenges are discussed at the executive level and decisions are taken and communicated to the staff via their respective managers as well as on a public platform at the hospital.” 

But she adds: “It is not procedural to allow staff members to fix items while there are departments that are responsible for fixing those items.” 

And while doctors continue to ask for their identities to be protected, Ncha says there is no intimidation or prevention of any staff member from speaking up, but she says matters should be resolved through internal processes. She confirms that there are tensions between clinical managers and consultants but that this “has received attention from the [department] and is being addressed”. DM/MC

* Identities withheld to protect doctors from being targeted for speaking out publicly.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • ROY CLARKE says:

    It is about time the public knew who was individually responsible for these disasters. Calling out the ANC collectively enables the individuals to avoid personal responsibility. I would suggest the press creates a database of these individuals accessible to the general public so they can be known, shamed and be subjected to deserved public approbrium, so that their neighbours colleagues, relatives and staff know them for what they are.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Roy, when Dr Benn quit because of the intimidation and uselessness of the deployed management, I wrote to the new Premier of Gauteng to express my outrage and disgust, because I have had personal experience of Dr Benn’s world class, tireless and amazing work. Lesufi’s PA kicked the can down the road to the Gauteng Health Department, who kicked the can down the road to – who do you think? – yup, the management who are the issue in the first place. Needless to say, no response whatsoever from them. None. Nothing. Just a sullen, seething silence, characteristic of the arrogance of cadres who have no business being deployed to to posts way above their competence. If indeed it is only an issue of competence!

  • Chris 123 says:

    Hey Cyril, Crisp are you listening take your heads out of the bucket, NHI will sink what is left of our health system, including the private one when all doctors are gone.

  • Matsobane Monama says:

    The German Philosopher Friedriech Neitzche said if you are fighting a Monster don’t become a Monster yourself. We have a NEW MONSTER. Dr Asvat, Dr Ribeiro, Dr Abbott n many others paid the ultimate price for dare standing up for their Black patients. The Monster has changed colour bt the result are the same. It’s time for Hellen Joseph Doctors to take a stand and be Very vocal, the Public knows the TRUTH. Some Doctors may lose their lives, BUT REMEMBER REBELS always change the course of history. Lets fight for Politicians NOT to get their dirty hands on NHI money. Our current health care system is unacceptable in a civilized
    Country. Emigration is running away. SA is still the MOST BEAUTIFUL country to live in despite our many challenges. Do a little bit of traveling to see for yourself or asked those who left, it’s not always GREEN on the other side

  • A.K.A. Fred says:

    Deeply saddening article. It infuriates and solicits responses, but the comments do not penetrate the thick skins of those responsible for the mess. They carry on regardless, as long as they can collect the payment at the end of the month. Not one thing will change until some inconvenience (financial?) is felt by the “walking dead” that make up the majority of management at government institutions. Ricky Jervais accurately said “When you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It’s only painful & difficult for others. The same applies when you are stupid”.  At some point we must remove any politeness and call it like it is – The cultures of entitlement, meritless promotions, no civilised shame and no accountability (promoted by BEE and cadre deployment) are the part of our African landscape that is destroying any development or maintenance of systems/services in our country. A monumental pushback is required and we all had better get behind the 3 doctors who have been brave enough to take a stand, before everything is lost.

  • John Smythe says:

    Yoohoo!! Dr Nicholas Crisp?? Where aaaare you??? Still haven’t pulled your head out of the sand? Take a close look at how you clowns can’t even get one hospital running efficiently. And you want to rip my taxes away and run an NHS? Keep your flithy yes-man hands off my money.

  • Marijke Schopman says:

    I applaud the brave persons fighting this uphill battle in this country where the ones in power are only interested in their own welfare and pocket, and not in the least in that of their constituency. Things will only change if the political leaders are forced to use the healthcare facilities of HJH and the likes and will have to endure power and water outages like the rest of us. When will that happen??

    • Riette Fern says:

      All parliamentarians and government/state department employees should be compelled to use state run healthcare facilities – this I am sure will lead to a speedy improvement of the facilities at HJH and re-opening of Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and others.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    I suppose that the ultimate responsibility for the hospital belongs with the national department of health who couldn’t care a fig for patients, doctors, and front line workers.

    Too busy with stuff like the direction of tenders

  • Erma Gardner says:

    The Life Esidemeni disaster didn’t even cause heads to roll. Why would this?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.