Some doctors ‘taking advantage’

2012-10-03 00:00

THE Kwazulu-Natal Health Department has for two weeks failed to explain an investigation into state-employed doctors who run private practices, allegedly to the detriment of patients in state hospitals.

The inquiry was made after an anonymous source provided The Witness with a list of eight specialist physicians at Grey’s Hospital and two at Durban’s Chief Albert Luthuli who he alleged were spending time between the hospitals and their private practices.

The Witness can confirm that the doctors work privately at three private hospitals in Pietermaritzburg and two in Durban.

The doctors have not been named.

In 2010 the department resolved that no authority would be granted for private work by state-paid doctors, to ensure that doctors remain focused and committed.

The source said patients in some public hospitals were being left in the care of junior doctors.

“These doctors and others in the public sector go private due to low salaries in the government. Practising privately also boosts their capabilities because of the state-of-the-art equipment, which is not available in government hospitals,” said the source.

He said junior doctors were left in charge of public sector hospitals with inadequate supervision, which was a recipe for disaster.

“These specialists have scarce skills and as such they have some leverage over the Department of Health.

“If they are punished in any way, then all they do is to walk away en masse and leave the services to collapse.”

In July, department head Dr Sibongile Zungu said about 30 doctors across the province were being investigated for moonlighting.

Zungu told reporters at the time that some state-paid doctors were doing private jobs, despite being warned not to.

The South African Medical Association (Sama), which represents doctors, said it would do whatever it takes to defend its members if they were charged for moonlighting.

Chairperson Dr Poppy Ramathuba said she had heard about the investigations, but was adamant that there would never be a case as the doctors were acting within the national health policy on remunerative work outside public works.

“When the announcement was made two years ago, we were not consulted. We therefore cannot accept that the department should charge our members with running private practices.

“There is no legislation that prohibits them from doing so. They are allowed to apply for permission from their managers, and once that is granted then the applicant must just stick to the stipulated hours.

“It is the responsibility of the hospital managers to manage this process,” said Ramathuba.

She conceded that the lack of adequate equipment in government hospitals was driving doctors away.

“Some theatre procedures require sophisticated equipment, which is not available in some state hospitals.”

Although Sama had met the department to discuss certain issues, “we had no agreement to ban remuneration work outside public works”.

If the policy had changed, the health department should instruct the public service to change it in all public service departments.

“The department must get its house in order and deal with the crisis in state health facilities.”

Ramathuba also conceded that some doctors took advantage of the situation because they knew they would not be disciplined because of their specialised skills.

According to statistics from the Health Professions Council of South Africa, reported by sister paper City Press last month, 37 333 health practitioners were registered in South Africa last year. Slightly more than 12 000 of those were specialists.

Last week Health Department spokesperson Chris Maxon said inquiries into the matter would be forwarded to the office of the head of department.

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