Most recently, Leratong Hospital, on Gauteng’s West Rand, was reported to have experienced 17 doctor resignations since the beginning of the year.
Gauteng Health and Social Development MEC Qedani Mahlangu, has, however, denied that doctors have resigned from the Leratong Hospital. Mahlangu said that, “the doctors who have left the hospital did not resign. “They are doctors who have left because their contracts had expired and, therefore, have taken different responsibilities in the public sector. Some have resorted to join management throughout the province, while others went to the private sector”.
The exodus of doctors from public health care is viewed by many as a crisis, but MEC Mahlangu has downplayed the significance of this phenomenon. “I am not alarmed at all. That’s happened across the province. Doctors serving community service move around because of the job offers they received and others exit the profession completely to pursue another career”, she said.
While Mahlangu denied that 17 doctors have resigned from Leratong Hospital, two doctors confirmed that medics have, indeed, been leaving the hospital in droves.
Dr Zuurman, not her real name, is one of those who left the hospital in a huff. After serving Leratong Hospital’s Psychiatry Department for nearly 10 years, she quit in January this year. Zuurman said that she threw in the towel after she “got fed-up with bad working conditions and general exploitation of doctors”.
“The psychiatry unit was working with two doctors. With the addition of the consultant, we were three doctors. We had to manage a 32-bed unit in Psychiatry and, obviously, with the overflow of patients in other wards things got very bad. At some point there were about 30 patients in one of the medical wards. I’m talking about psychiatric patients managed in a medical ward. We were basically dividing our time in the psychiatric wards and other wards”, she said.
Zuurman added that, “over the years the systems at Leratong Hospital began to collapse and the situation is now at a standstill, and with the need for medical health care increasing, the patient’s health has been severely compromised”.
“They were trying to transfer patients to Chris Hani Baragwanath, but they are also lacking somewhere. The demand is huge, the population is growing, the problems are growing, and the impact of HIV/AIDS has had a tremendous effect.
This is not only in surgical department or psychiatry or medicine. It is all over. We brought this to the attention of management... that we need to plan ahead, but the result was nothing”, she said.
South African public service doctors’ dissent has been in the spotlight in past years for being under-paid and working under difficult conditions. More recently in 2009, a prolonged protest action by doctors further crippled the health system. Doctors took to the streets in protest against bad salaries, lack of infrastructure and staff shortages.
A year on, another doctor testifies that nothing has changed for doctors, but instead things have worsened. The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is a general surgeon and also a former employee of Leratong Hospital. He complained of how doctors get exploited and never receive over-time pay for working extended hours.
“According to labour law, you should be paid double for night hours, but Leratong never paid this. They paid Sunday rates only on Sunday. The rest of the money, I don’t know where it went”, he said.
The anonymous source said upon investigation, doctors at Leratong Hospital discovered a discrepancy in over-time pay and a lack of uniformity in remunerating over-time at different hospitals in Gauteng. He said that, because of this discrepancy in 2005 close to 40 doctors decided to take the matter to court.
But, “some not very clever man told us that health service is 24 hours. It’s normal for doctors to work at night. The case was dismissed. On the basis of this private case between Leratong Hospital and head office, the rest of Gauteng still illegally stopped paying those Sunday rates for extended overtime”, he said.
Our source further claims that after the court case, he was victimised and later pushed to resign from Leratong Hospital in 2008.
Meanwhile, the Gauteng Health Department says staff levels in all hospitals in the province have drastically improved. Health and Social Development MEC, Qedani Mahlangu, said that, “22 posts will be advertised for Leratong and other hospitals in the province. The issue, whether they will be filled with immediate effect, is our desire. Natalspruit has been short of plus minus 20 doctors and they keep on advertising the posts, including nurses. People come in and when they get in there they work for a few days, then they leave. We are trying to resolve those kinds of issues”.
Mahlangu said that, “currently, there are 120 doctors employed at Leratong Hospital on a full-time basis”. However, Dr Zuurman has contradicted her, saying “at the time of” her “departure, many departments were operating on skeleton staff”.