Dr Nokwethemba Mtshali-Hadebe, CEO of Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha
Ayear ago when Dr Nokwe- themba Mtshali-Hadebe’s appointment as the youngest CEO of a public hospital was hailed as a first for South Africa, there must have been many who said a silent prayer and wished her “good luck” because of the many challenges in the public health system.

However, the now 32-year-old Mtshali-Hadebe has shown her mettle and proved to the doubting Thomases that wisdom, leadership and courage are not necessarily confined to the elderly.

The changes she brought to Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston have made health care easily accessible for the communities of Vooslorus, Katlehong, Thokoza and the larger Germiston area.

Mtshali-Hadebe served as acting CEO for the hospital in 2015 and was officially appointed to the position in May 2016.

She does weekly walkabouts in the hospital, a four-storey building with more than 700 staff members and 300 beds for patients, keeping her finger on the pulse and staying in the loop on all the issues and challenges.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) graduate says: “While my passion is youth development, I am also passionate about the mentoring of young girls.

“Making sure that young girls feel supported because there is a scarcity of mentors.

“I think what my achievements also do is that it makes it possible and attainable and it makes them believe that they too can work towards something like this.

“There is a huge impact on the psychological level, seeing that ‘this is do-able’.

“I have not had to endure severe hardships and I know that my path has been relatively easy. I know that most women’s paths are not that easy.

“We need more young people to get into health and we need to be able to support their journeys.

“We need more young CEOs and it must be something that we are deliberate about. We must ensure that black excellence becomes the norm, female excellence becomes the norm,” she says.

She admits that despite courageous efforts to transform the health system in South Africa, the shadow of apartheid reflects on the racial and geographic disparities in access to health-care services.

“As black people, as black women, we’re not seen as good enough.

“We need to do that much extra to prove ourselves.

“One of the things I always say is that it can’t be that I have to shatter glass ceilings, only for young people to have to shatter their own glass ceilings.

“They must have a clear path and must shatter greater ceilings and not at the same level.

“We can’t have the same struggle. We must be able to pave the way for them.

“They should have different struggles, not the ones that we have had to fight.

“It must be something totally different and that is where mentoring comes in where we say other young people can’t go through the same struggle.

“We can prove ourselves, that we are worthy, that we are capable,” says Mtshali-Hadebe.

She emphasises that it is impor- tant to address the interconnectedness of the many elements of poverty and health.

The main challenges of the public health-care sector have been related to the burden of disease and the failures in effective planning for meeting health needs in the country.

She has put in place programmes that include health-care education for patients, which is crucial considering the shortage of doctors and an increase in diseases linked to lifestyle and bad eating habits.

“The challenges at Bertha Gxowa are not just the hospital’s challenges, these are challenges faced by the health-care system.

“One of the challenges we experience is an influx of patients and the shortage of doctors emanates from that so we do what we can to stabilise (the situation),” she says.

Now that the hospital has been open for a year, the programmes that have been put in place include one to educate patients on health care.

The flow of information and how it is received by patients and the community is what matters, Mtshali-Hadebe says.

“Patient education is very impor- tant to us.

“We tell them this is what we can do, what we can’t do.

“In one of our departments, we do a lot of road shows.

“The Golden Walk took place a few weeks ago, basically raising awareness.

“We are engaging communities, also through churches.

“We’ve also started asking the municipality when they’re having their imbizos and community engagements so that we can join them and let them know what we do and these are the services we provide because that is important.

“We have to do our bit in patient education.

“We try to have a medical doctor with us as well so they can engage on medically related questions.”

Mtshali-Hadebe says she can handle the pressure of being a CEO although she is young.

“One thing that would make me feel uneasy would be thinking it couldn’t be done.

“We’ve got it in us to change the public perception of public health service.

“I always tell my colleagues that we must remember we are starting off on the back foot so our efforts need to be tripled because we need to get to an acceptable base.

“Right now, we still need to work hard. Yes, changes need to be done but it must be tolerable.

“In the first year, the pressure was to get things done right. But then you realise that with the resources that we have got, we need to have more of a phased approach.”

According to Mtshali-Hadebe, staff attitudes are the focus of the biggest number of complaints.

The hospital management has looked into the matter systematically to alleviate the pressure that staff are under as they are the most important resource.

“We can have the best machines and a good environment but the staff are vital.

“So we have done employee wellness, we have staggered and we have to be deliberate about it where they are able to provide debriefing sessions, particularly in the high acuity units such as maternity, incident and emergency.

“This where people feel they are not able to cope and we have to allow them to debrief,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s not the work environment that is stressing the staff. It’s all the roles they play - being a mother, a wife, nurse etc and the pressures that are associated with that so self-care is important.

“We try and make sure that they understand we do care about them,” adding that a staff clinic is available in the hospital for staff members.

“We don’t let our staff queue along with the patients when they are not feeling well. They go to an area dedicated to them and they feel that they can go at any time and not feel like they have to wait until patients are done.

“With that recognition and understanding, the staff feel they are able to give more and they are more engaged in the organisation,” she says.

“Our staff are our biggest resource and while the hospital receives financial assistance, they do more with less.”