Pretoria - Once a beacon of hope for the people of North Gauteng, trouble-torn Steve Biko Academic Hospital is on the verge of collapsing because of constant equipment failures, staff shortages and postponed procedures over the past year, roleplayers say.
Things have become so bad, staff say, that they are being forced to play God. “We choose lives and turn deserving patients away. That is the most painful thing to do,” a doctor at the hospital said.
They had also learnt to lie to patients, but “we eventually run out of lies”, the doctor said, and this made unsatisfied patients angry.
Last week, the Pretoria High Court gave the hospital 30 days to perform urgent surgery on a city teenager. The mother of the boy sought help from the court after the hospital had turned her son away several times.
When the 10-storey hospital was opened at the end of 2006, it was projected as the answer to the health needs in the district.
With a R4.2 billion cash injection and R500 million of state-of-the-art equipment installed, the hospital was positioned as a referral facility for Pretoria hospitals.
But roleplayers, including doctors and other hospital staff, have painted a bleak picture of the hospital, quoting budgetary constraints as the major cause of a “breakdown in services”.
The hospital had run out of supplies for theatres and wards, they said, and had become overburdened by an influx of patients from at least three other provinces - Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State.
Staff had become overstretched after the Department of Health imposed a moratorium on hiring.
“There is a huge underutilisation of intensive care unit beds because there is no staff to manage them,” the DA’s provincial spokesman on health, Jack Bloom, said.
The department had become strict on the budget, giving the hospital much less than it needed.
“This has hit the hospital badly,” Bloom said.
A chunk of the budget was swallowed by salaries, leaving the core function of delivering quality health care to suffer, he added.
The number of cancer patients being turned away in recent months has increased drastically because of faulty radiation machines, as has the numbers of patients requiring surgery and other procedures at the hospital.
“We had already been admitted and were in the ward when staff told us to get up and leave because there would be no procedures that week,” Linah Sekelani said.
The 40-year-old woman had been diagnosed with fibroids and required urgent surgery in February, but she was told to come back in August next year when there would be beds available in ICU.
“They told me to expect a call early next year and a possible date for next August, but said there was no guarantee I would be operated on next year,” she said.
Sekelani and other patients’ procedures have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled.
“Services are collapsing, there are no drugs, no pharmaceutical supplies, no maintenance of equipment and no consumables,” the chairwoman of the SA Medical Association’s public sector committee, Dr Phopi Ramathuba, said.
Association members at the hospital were under strain, she said.
An advisory committee from the association had met the provincial Department of Health to discuss the possible transfer of the hospital to the national department so it would be allocated more money, Ramathuba said.
The hospital ran on a limited supply of everything and more often than not there were no gloves in theatre, no gauzes, no linen and no gowns in theatre, a doctor at the hospital said.
“Being forced to lie and make decisions on whom to treat and whom to turn away affects us psychologically, it kills our morale and makes us dread a day at work.”
When it was opened the hospital promised patients 22 fully functional theatres, 76 ICU beds, 46 high care beds and 80 consulting rooms - something it was failing to deliver as scheduled procedures were cancelled all the time, staff said.
Instead, there is a serious shortage of X-ray and radiology machines, among other things.
The hospital’s chief executive, Dr Ernest Kenoshi, had not responded to questions by the time of going to press, but Gauteng Health Department spokesman Simon Zwane said the magnitude of problems did not warrant panic.
He played down concerns, saying: “We are aware of problems in delayed payments to service providers, but that is being dealt with.”
Zwane said there were no issues around the hospital’s budget or the patient load. “There are no discussions around that or increasing the budget, there are no problems with service delivery or the lack of it.”
Ramathuba said the hospital was not coping and things were out of hand. Discussions around an improved facility and working conditions were like “milking a bull”.
“We strongly feel conditions can be fixed, if the hospital is taken over by the national department to accommodate its patients.”