Life Healthcare sends in more nurses as it battles spike in Covid-19 admissions

  • Hospital group Life Healthcare is facing a sharp rise in hospital admissions for Covid-19 as the pandemic takes root across the country. 
  • However, it is also battling staff shortages and a loss in income due to a reduction in elective surgeries during the lockdown. 
  • An additional challenge has been posed by hackers, who recently found their way onto the group's servers. 

Hospital group Life Healthcare is recruiting staff and beefing up its equipment supplies, having been faced with a shortage of nurses as its hospital admissions for Covid-19 increased sharply.

In a letter to doctors last week, Adam Pyle, Life Healthcare South Africa CEO, said the group now has over 1 000 Covid-19 patients in its hospitals across the country.

This week South Africa’s Covid-19 cases passed the 200 000 mark.

The Cape Town Life Healthcare hospital initially had the biggest number of Covid-19 patients, but cases have rapidly spread to the Eastern Cape, where the hospitals are under "severe pressure".

Pyle said Gauteng, the North West and KwaZulu-Natal are not far behind, with Covid-19 cases on the rise.

According to the letter, seen by Fin24, the number of Covid-19 patients at Life St Dominic’s in East London increased from 37 at the end of May to 132 at the end of June.

In Johannesburg, Life Flora’s Covid-19 patient numbers swelled from four at the end of May to 74 at the end of June, while Life St Georges in Port Elizabeth saw its cases grow from 14 to 65 in the same time period.

Recruitment drive

To remedy the issue, Life Healthcare has begun recruiting nurses. On Wednesday, Pyle told Fin24 that the group will be adding nurses in training, and will hire agency nurses on contract to bolster its nursing staff numbers.

It has moved nurses to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London to assist with the surge in Covid-19 cases. Life Healthcare also trains 1 000 nurses a year at its Life College of Nursing, and has been using these resources to provide hospitals with support.

The group has additionally moved ventilators to hospitals with the most urgent need and has added 75 new ventilators to its equipment. It is upgrading 92 of its ventilators for high flow nasal oxygen therapy.

Pyle said despite the growing number of cases, the group still has bed capacity available. Hospital occupancy rates dropped by 40% in April and 50% in May as people put elective surgery on hold for fear of contracting Covid-19. The low case numbers were also driven by the Level 5 lockdown.

The Eastern Cape’s bed occupancy is 65% and is a combination of emergency and Covid-19 cases.

'Major challenge'

"Ensuring that we have sufficient staff in our facilities is a major challenge. As beds are being added to deal with the crisis [in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Gauteng], this has resulted in exacerbating the nursing shortage," Pyle said in the letter.

He added that the staffing challenge had been aggravated by a number of Life Healthcare hospital employees testing positive for Covid-19.

Zaid Paruk, a portfolio manager and analyst at Aeon Investment, said the increase in Covid-19 cases - coupled with patients not going to hospitals for elective surgeries during the lockdown - was putting a strain on private hospitals.

Elective surgeries are more lucrative for hospitals than the Covid-cases.

While dealing with the rise in Covid-19 cases presents a challenge for Life Healthcare - like its competitors Netcare and Mediclinic - a recent data breach the group experienced could add to its woes in the long term.

Last month hackers found their way into Life Healthcare’s servers.

"They need to resolve this hacking [issue] because it is adding an extra administrative burden to their case load because the hospitals are using a manual system. That’s burdensome, it takes time, it adds costs, it’s a disaster," Paruk said.

Paruk said the group’s hospitals are operating manually and it may have to set up a new system, which could cost R400 million to R500 million.

Pyle, however, said the group is investigating the cyber-attack issue, but an overhaul of its system is unlikely. He said Life Healthcare will instead strengthen its cyber defences.

In the meantime, the hospitals will continue to operate manually until the issue is resolved.

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