GAUTENG PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS
Water pressure restored at Helen Joseph Hospital but senior clinician voices healthcare concerns
The water supply at the hospital in Johannesburg has been resorted following low water pressure since Thursday, 1 June. A senior clinician at the hospital described the situation as ‘inhumane’ and although the water supply has been restored, it still illustrates the poor state of public healthcare facilities in the province.
The water supply at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg has been resorted following low water pressure since Thursday, 1 June. The situation improved slightly on 5 June, but the emergency, surgical and medical wards still did not have an adequate water supply.
The hospital’s CEO, Dr Rodney Pheto confirmed that the water supply was 100% restored to all the taps and pipes in the hospital as of Tuesday, 6 June.
According to a jointly issued statement by the Gauteng Provincial Government and Johannesburg Water, the preliminary investigation identified the cause of the low water pressure to be an open valve.
“An open valve within the ring feed of the hospital had to be closed as it was creating negative pressure, meaning water was no longer being pushed into the hospital network. This resulted in the low pressure to the hospital tanks. The water pressure increased immediately after the main valve was closed,” read the statement.
On Tuesday evening, the water level at the hospital reservoir was initially at 80% and expected to reach 100% capacity later in the evening. Technical teams continued to monitor water levels overnight, while a water pumping truck from Johannesburg Water will continue to be stationed on-site as a precautionary measure while the situation is being monitored, according to the statement.
A senior clinician at Helen Joseph Hospital, who asked not to be named, said the lack of water led to inhumane patient conditions. Small amounts of drinking water were provided, but no water was available for patients to bathe or use toilets, he said.
“It meant that the toilets don’t work, it’s not just routine use of toilets — you have patients who are very sick and use the toilet many more times if they have diarrhoea or vomiting. It also means patients can’t bath themselves or shower to keep clean and patients couldn’t wash their hands well,” he said.
Although efforts were made to provide alcohol-based solutions for hand hygiene, it was not optimal in all situations. Parts of the hospital also could not be adequately cleaned, despite hospital staff’s best efforts.
“It affects staff in terms of their ability to wash their hands and clean their own clothes if they get soiled or messed up from patient care,” he said, adding that this can also put patients at further risk.
“It’s a transmission between people. So, if someone comes in with bad diarrhoea, there is always a risk of transmitting that bug or other bugs to other patients who come in for a different problem,” he said. Although staff made every effort to make sure that their hand hygiene was as good as possible with the alcohol-based solutions, this was not adequate.
“Sometimes you really need soap and water, and there was no water,” he said.
Not possible to run a hospital without water
The senior clinician described the lack of water as ‘horrendous’ and said the hospital should have been closed until the issue was resolved.
“The fundamental thing is, it’s not possible to run a functioning hospital without safe access to ready water. There just isn’t any other way of doing it,” he said.
“You can’t keep accepting lower and lower standards at a hospital and surely no functioning water supply is a valid reason”.
He said that patients already in the hospital should be moved, but new admissions should have stopped.
“It’s not ideal, but I do not think that a health facility should be in a position to accept ongoing admissions of patients to a hospital which just doesn’t have water,” he said.
Pheto said that closing the ER or other parts of the hospital would overburden Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, Leratong Hospital and South Rand Hospital, which was why patients were being diverted for a limited period of time. However, the senior clinician said disagreed, pointing to when Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital had to close its emergency unit and psychiatric ward.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Charlotte Maxeke hospital casualty unit open, but not for ‘walk-in’ emergencies
“The other hospitals around would obviously be burdened by excess patients, more than would more there instead, but at least it would be an environment where there was water and otherwise good healthcare quality,” he said. Staff could also be redeployed to the hospitals that would be affected to ease the load, he added.
“Closing the hospital at that point also really does paradoxically help solve the problem because it shows the urgency of it and everyone who needs to solve the problem — from the provincial level down actually works as quickly as possible. Whereas when the hospital just says open, sometimes the solutions are not found as quickly,” he said.
Not a once-off incident
The hospital has battled water outages and supply constraints for at least two years.
“The only thing to understand is that it is not to be seen in isolation. This is not the first time the hospital has run out of water in the last few years, it’s also just a symptom of the generally decaying infrastructure in all of these state healthcare facilities,” the senior clinician said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Images reveal how water shedding brings disease and indignity to two major Johannesburg hospitals
“All the hospitals in the province are just left to decay so often without adequate attention and it’s only solved when things become embarrassing for the political actors higher up the food chain,” he said.
“It’s really not an optimal solution. This and other problems need to be solved with a totally different attitude rather than only when things become a crisis”. DM