Health hazard

2008-07-31 00:00

Addressing the KwaZulu-Natal legislature’s portfolio committee for health this week, the MEC for Health Peggy Nkonyeni blamed budget constraints for the inadequacies of service provision and the failure to fill vacant nursing posts. The minister was acknowledging what the Department of Health denied earlier this year when this newspaper exposed serious deficiencies. It is now officially clear that public hospitals in this province are facing a severe crisis.

Behind the current situation is an undisciplined over-expenditure in the previous financial year of R1,2 billion. As a result of this, the national treasury has imposed constraints on expenditure this year. For example, it has forbidden the filling of 33 000 vacant nursing posts. It is a shocking commentary on the present state of affairs that posts which could be afforded before cannot be filled and paid for now.

Why is it that so many nursing positions are vacant? The key explanation is the same as in several other professional spheres of government service. Nurses have left the profession as a result of disenchantment with conditions of service, including discrimination in favour of previously disadvantaged groups. The question is whether others have been coming forward sufficiently to take their place. This is hardly an inviting prospect when the ratio of nurses to patients in public hospitals is 1:69. A further problem is that, because of financial constraints, many hospitals have to function without basic requirements such as syringes and protective gloves and other everyday nursing needs.

Happily, as an article in this newspaper revealed yesterday, there is a more positive element to celebrate. Thembeka Sibisi, a local community worker, wrote of her personal experience not only of the various negative aspects of Edendale Hospital in this city but also of an element of genuine caring, especially in the medical outpatients section. Staff shortages made the familiar long queue inevitable but the service, when given, was efficient and friendly. Here is a personal memory which shows how vital it is for hospital service to be humane as well as professional, even when circumstances are trying.

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