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Patients and families are turning to social media to express their anger and frustration with government hospitals in the Eastern Cape. 

The province’s public healthcare system has historically battled with staff shortages and a lack of resources, but recent posts paint a harsh picture of conditions at two facilities. 

Three social media posts went viral in the past month - one from Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth and two from Frere Hospital in East London. All three posts have led the Eastern Cape Department of Health to intervene immediately and launch investigations.

The post from Livingstone showed an admissions clerk drinking from a quart of beer, stumbling repeatedly behind the counter as they tried to locate a patient’s file. The clerk can be heard slurring their words. Days following the post, the Department of Health suspended the employee pending an investigation. 

The two posts from Frere took place within three days of each other. The first made headlines across the province last week after footage depicted a man in severe pain with a gaping surgical wound. 

The wound was allegedly swarming with flies, and left open and unattended to for hours. The Department of Health called the video a violation of the patient’s rights.

The department’s response was met with mixed reactions on social media and by Mario Lombard, who posted the video. Lombard, a friend of the patient, told Health-e that at the time there were no staff members available to assist. 

“This man looked like he was busy dying, I mean if your intestines are drying out like that and there are flies sitting on them, how much worse can it get? I did it so people can see (what's happening),” he said. 

The second post was a photograph of unused patient beds outside Frere’s maternity ward. The person who posted the photo expressed anger that they were told it would be a 16-hour wait for a bed, when it seemed there were beds available. 

Former chief executive of Frere and current Deputy Director-General for Hospital Services in the Eastern Cape, Rolene Wagner, told Health-e that there was much more to these stories and warned social media users not to take everything they see in videos or posts as fact. 

She said the posts were taken out of context and did not afford management time to respond or explain the situations.  

According to Wagner, Lombard’s video was taken when visiting was not permitted. Nurses were in the middle of changing and re-dressing wounds, which is not something they would allow patients' families to witness. She said nurses only permitted visits during this time because some families had travelled long distances. 

She said that by the time Frere management saw Lombard’s video, the patient’s wound had been properly re-dressed. 

Wagner stated that unfortunately there was only one nurse caring for 35 patients when Lombard’s video was taken. “At a ward level, with respect to the one post, the patient received appropriate wound care; however, the same nurse did have other patients in the ward who also had to have their wounds cared for by the team.”

She said the beds outside the maternity ward were awaiting disposal, and had been replaced with modern, new beds inside the ward.

“An intended consequence of the posts may have been to solicit support for the patient(s) involved and ensure better care - this is noble. However, it also sowed seeds of fear and distrust among the community about the facilities involved. The entire facility (Frere Hospital) and its staff were slated as useless,” said Wagner. 

“While one respects the freedom of expression and in some cases, outrage, I think it is also important to ensure that one does so responsibly.”  

Navigating the public healthcare system is not an easy task, making social media seem like the only option for those in desperate need of help. Wagner urged families to speak to the hospital management directly. 

“We would like to encourage the public to bring issues of concern to our attention when they occur; but to do so via the appropriate channels. It is our intention to provide the best possible care to our patients and a positive experience of that care, within the available resources,” she said. 

Department of Health Spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha told Health-e that there are staff challenges, but said this was no excuse for what was alleged in Lombard’s video. 

“The MEC has sent quality assurance there to conduct an investigation on the incident. What is on the video is disturbing and it is not what is expected from public health facilities.”

The Eastern Cape has made progress in the last four years, including a significant reduction in child and maternal death rates, but there are still definite challenges.

Wagner stated that as trauma, injuries and communicable diseases grow, so does the demand for care. This, alongside the escalating costs of new technology and medicines places a huge burden on budgets.

* Although the video of the patient with the surgical wound has been widely shared on social media, IOL has decided not to use it in this story.

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