Consumer Watch: Dis-Chem forced to shelve free Covid-19 testing plan

South African drugstore chain Dis-Chem Pharmacies Ltd reported a 39% drop in interim profit on Thursday, hurt by strike-related costs and lower demand from suppliers. African News Agency (ANA)

South African drugstore chain Dis-Chem Pharmacies Ltd reported a 39% drop in interim profit on Thursday, hurt by strike-related costs and lower demand from suppliers. African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jul 20, 2020


Pharmaceutical giant Dis-Chem has been forced to stop its offer of free Covid-19 testing to the needy due to a testing backlog. The retailer announced last month it had partnered with the Solidarity Fund and Momentum's Hello Doctor service to offer the testing to non-medical aid members and the unemployed after a tele-consultation with Hello Doctor.

To qualify, consumers were required to dial *120*394# (no data or airtime required) for a consultation with Hello Doctor, which would call the patient back within an hour. If they met criteria, they would be referred to Dis-Chem for free testing and receive a redeemable voucher. The results would be available in three to five days.

The Solidarity Fund donated an initial R20 million to roll out the free testing. Dis-Chem would arrange the testing facilities at shopping mall parking lots and provide nursing staff and personal protective equipment.

Last week, though, Dis-Chem announced it was forced to close its testing facilities for the foreseeable future due to a backlog in test results at testing labs. In a statement, it said the unanticipated increase in infections across the country, particularly in Gauteng, had put “severe pressure" on testing labs, which had impacted on the turnaround time for test results".

The statement continued: "The rise in Gauteng alone (where infections jumped over 283%) has put immense strain on the labs, which has impacted turnaround times for Dis-Chem. We are constantly following up with the various laboratories, but they are being forced to prioritise urgent hospital tests. The number of labs that can do the tests is limited, and we are spreading our load across as many as possible."

Lizeth Kruger, Dis-Chem’s national clinic manager, said: “Another factor affecting the speed of testing and obtaining results is the reduced number of flights around the country, so transporting tests to the labs from outlying cities and other remote stations is delayed.”

Kruger said the system had been working well, until a week ago, when a sudden surge in numbers overwhelmed facilities.

Outstanding results would be SMSed to customers as soon as Dis-Chem received them. Meanwhile, Momentum announced that it would still be offering the Hello Doctor service for Covid-19 and other client requirements.

The company said while it understood Dis-Chem’s decision to close its Covid-19 testing facilities, this decision did not affect Momentum and Hello Doctor's independent initiative to provide all South Africans with a free Covid-19 tele-health service.

“Through Hello Doctor, a 24/7 mobile phone-based service that provides access to doctors within minutes, South Africans can still get free advice on whether they should get tested or obtain other Covid-19-related advice by dialling *120*394#”, Damian McHugh, executive at Momentum Health Solutions, explained.

He said although getting tested at Dis-Chem was now no longer an option, Momentum would continue funding the Hello Doctor tele-health service so that it remained free to all South Africans.

Momentum Health Solutions said since the outbreak of Covid-19, it had launched various initiatives, which included a contribution to the Solidarity Fund, free access for all South Africans to Hello Doctor, financial relief to its clients through HealthSaver accounts and Momentum Multiply savings and rewards. It had also sponsored a mobile testing unit for the Gauteng provincial government.

Hello Doctor operates from 9am to 3pm on weekdays.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.

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