Johannesburg - A doctor is taking the Minister of Health and the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to the Constitutional Court over the placement and treatment of doctors doing their mandatory community service.
In legal papers filed this week, Miguel Desroches said that the highest court in the land needed to decide what the human right norms and standards should be for “determining forced labour, slavery and cruel and degrading treatment in the workforce in relation to community service”, and whether the legislation into the rights and freedoms of health practitioners compelled to perform community service were justifiable.
Desroches described how he had requested that the Health Department place him at a Cape Town-based hospital to serve his year-long compulsory community service.
But his requests were repeatedly turned down, and the only placement he was given was in a rural area.
The 26-year-old studied at Wits University and worked as an intern at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town where he said, like all other interns, he worked excessive overtime, most of which was unpaid.
Unable and unwilling to be moved because of family commitments, Desroches has been unemployed and unable to operate as a doctor in South Africa. He said he felt that at this point he would have to relocate to Australia, but before he did he wanted to take on what he believed was the unconstitutional treatment of medical interns.
The legal papers said the application was to challenge the constitutionality of the Health Professions Act and the regulations relating to performance of community service, as well as the constitutionality of the working conditions imposed on medical practitioners serving internships and compulsory community service.
Student doctors were subjected to unlimited and unregulated work hours in the service of the state “amounting to cruel and degrading treatment”.
Married couples were being forced to separate due to the placements and young doctors routinely worked between 24 to 36 hours at a time, without rest or meal breaks.
The hours were so draining many doctors had car accidents on the way home and had a greater chance of making mistakes while at work, putting their own and their patients’ lives at risk.
“The working hours of trainee medical practitioners are unregulated, exploitative and degrading,” said Desroches.
“I have a right to not have to endanger my health and my life every day in the service of the state.”
Desroches said he understood there were risks to being seen to challenge the system on which he relied for his livelihood.
“I am willing to take a knock financially and to risk my reputation publicly for the sake of what I believe is right, just and equitable for my colleagues, the public and me,” he said.
A separate complaint to the public protector has been registered over this issue with various young doctors submitting complaints anonymously.
Joe Maila, spokesman for the Department of Health, confirmed that papers had been filed against them and they would be opposing the matter.
“The matter is obviously sub judice and therefore I am unable to go into details,” Maila said.
Advocate Tshepo Boikanyo, the chief operations officer at the HPCSA, said they would, together with the Department of Health, determine a way forward in the matter.