Oncology backlog: How KZN health dept will address the crisis

Hospital corridor. (iStock)
Hospital corridor. (iStock)

Durban – The KwaZulu-Natal health department has decided to partner with private hospitals and specialists to address the oncology crisis in the province, department head Dr Musa Gumede said on Tuesday.

"We've decided to engage in private/public partnerships since we can't get specialists to work full-time in public hospitals," said Gumede.

He was speaking at a stakeholder and media breakfast in Durban on Tuesday morning.

Gumede said the department was also engaging with the SA Human's Rights Commission (SAHRC) on the matter on a fortnightly basis, since the Democratic Alliance's member of provincial legislature Dr Imraan Keeka had complained to the commission about the collapse of oncology services in KZN.

READ: 'You will have to drag me out,' DA shadow minister locked out of KZN oncology unit

"There has been a team from the department, which consists of senior members of management, including a legal expert, working on this matter," he said.

Gumede said the last full-time oncology specialist in KZN had left for Gauteng at the end of December. Following this, adverts for suitable candidates were sent out.

"There are not a lot of specialists staying around waiting to be employed," he said.

"Last year, there were seven oncology specialists who passed their studies. One of them was here [in KZN] but she left to start a family with her husband who is based in Gauteng. Others are in Cape Town and Gauteng while the [one] has gone back to his country Kenya," Gumede said.

Shortage of qualified specialists

He said they decided to put a tender out when they realised there was a shortage of qualified specialists who were willing to work at public hospitals.

"We have established a partnership with a group based at the Richards Bay hospital, which is a private hospital that does radiotherapy. They do radiotherapy for our patients in the north of KZN," he said.

Gumede explained that, if the group of oncologists at the Richards Bay hospital found that the patients sent by the department only required chemotherapy, they sent them back to public hospitals because "they have the capacity to perform chemotherapy".

He said it was the first time that oncology services were being extended to the private sector.

In Durban, the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital catered for cancer patients from the southern parts of the province. The hospital only had three fully functional machines, he said.

READ: KZN oncology services raise red flags

"Three private specialists offer different services to patients at this hospital," he said.

While chemotherapy services continued at Addington Hospital, which is located near the beachfront in Durban's South Beach, two machines still needed to be repaired and a new one was still set to be installed. They would be ready for use in April, he said.

"One major challenge at Addington is the hospital's proximity to the sea. It is less than 1km away from the sea, and there's lots of corrosion there. We need to redo the room where the machines are (situated) because there's a lot of corrosion in that room," he said.

Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, who was also at the event, said another challenge they faced was that some patients only visited public hospitals when they were in an "advanced cancer stage" and had run out of medical aid funds.

"That's how the crisis began," he said.

"At the start of the year they don't need public hospitals and we only expect about 4 000 cancer patients in KZN during that period, but come August an influx of patients come in droves from private institutions after they have exhausted their medical aid bills."

He said those patients then wanted to be first in line to be treated for cancer. 

'Not a failure but a challenge'

"It is not our failure but a challenge that should be dealt with," he said.

He added that patients from as far as Mozambique and Swaziland come to the province for "our oncology services".

In December, Gumede's predecessor Dr Sifiso Mtshali, resigned after being suspended by KZN Premier Willies Mchunu, pending an investigation into the irregular and illegal repair of oncology machines at Addington Hospital.

At the time, Mchunu said in a statement, that he had been in ongoing consultations with the provincial executive, which included Dhlomo and Finance MEC Belinda Scott.

"Dr Mtshali has not admitted to the allegations against him, but offered to resign if [the] provincial government had lost confidence in him," Mchunu said.

'Irregular and illegal '

It had been alleged that the appointment of KZN oncology to repair oncology machines at Addington Hospital was irregular and illegal and the allegations had attracted widespread publicity and considerable negative press and public criticism, Mchunu said at the time.

"Legal action has been taken by the Department of Health to set aside the agreement concluded with KZN oncology, and to reclaim funds already paid," he said.

Among the issues considered by the provincial executive was the matter of repairing the oncology machines as well as the appointment of KZN oncology to provide that service, he said.

"As the executive authority responsible for heads of department, I felt it would be prudent to accept the resignation, given the seriousness of the allegations, as well as to avoid further legal and forensic costs being incurred, and to bring finality to the issue," Mchunu concluded.

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