Paying for health care: a comprehensive primary health care approach - alternative to national health insurance
The South African Health Review 1996 documents the degree to which structural reform and policy formulation within the health sector has translated into real improvements in service delivery and the quality of peoples lives. In sum, the Review reveals a mixed scorecard. Progress has been excellent in some areas, whereas others show little movement. This, the Review argues, is the nature of health reform.
Perhaps the overriding success of the Ministry of Health has been the process of restructuring towards primary health care, reflected both in the organisation of health care and expenditure patterns. Equally impressive has been the introduction of an essential drugs list within the public sector, which is likely to improve the availability of medicines over a relatively short period of time. At local level, the Department of Health can take credit for generating tremendous enthusiasm for change amongst service managers and health workers.
But in the critical areas of financing and health legislation, progress has been slow. Discussions about some form of social health insurance have borne little fruit. A new Health Act is in its seventh draft, but has not been available for public comment. In addition, controversy over Cuban doctors and vocational training for new graduates has often obscured the need for a comprehensive plan for addressing the maldistribution of health personnel in South African - from province to province, between public and private sector, and between hospital and primary care facilities. All of the above need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the next year.
The South African Health Review 1996 tackles Sarafina 2 head-on, and considers its effect on HIV/AIDS prevention, the ability of the Department to make progress over the past year, and the relationship between the executive and legislative arms of health governance. But it places the biggest controversy faced by the Health Department during 1996 in the context of the full programme of health care reform initiated by the Ministry. Areas of energy and activity which serve as the vanguard of health reform have been identified, as have bottlenecks which impede progress.
The 1998 Review concentrates on equity and attempts to highlight progress that has been made as well as identify blocks to providing equitable public sector services throughout South Africa. Research commissioned specifically for the Review sheds light on the health status of South Africas population and key areas of the health system including finance and expenditure, human resources, information systems, pharmacy, and service delivery in clinics and district hospitals. This is provides a comprehensive, authoritative and independent review of South Africas health system.
In 1998 the greatest inequity remains the difference between those who predominantly use private sector health care and those who do not. Just under one fifth of South Africas population belong to a medical aid scheme, yet this group has access to 85% of pharmacists and 60% of medical specialists working in South Africa.
In the field of public sector spending comparisons of provincial health budgets indicate that great steps forward were made in the years 1995/6 and 1996/7 with most budgets coming closer to the national average. However since that time progress has stagnated, with the gap between expenditure per person in the North West, Mpumalanga and Northern provinces and the national average remaining a cause for concern. Comparisons of spending within provinces indicate that disparities are greater even than those between provinces. In Potchefstroom and Grahamstown Districts for example, for every R4 spent on health services in the public sector, R1 was spent in the Odi and Mount Frere Districts.
With regard to the distribution of health sector personnel, disparities tend to occur between the more urbanised and historically better funded provinces and those which are predominantly rural. For example there are forty nurses per 10,000 population in the Western Cape whereas in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga there are only 20 and Gauteng has 2000 people to every pharmacist while the comparable figure in the Northern Province is 16000.
A survey of 294 clinics and 84 regional and district hospitals provides information about service delivery and indicates the variations that exist between provinces and between rural and urban facilities. While 100% of clinics in the Northern Cape have all TB drugs available this is true for only 20% of clinics in the Northern Province and HIV testing is available in less than half of clinics in the Eastern Cape, North West, KwaZulu-Natal, and Northern Provinces. The investigation of maternal deaths was used as one of the indicators to measure the quality of care in hospitals and it was found that less than half of hospitals have meetings where infant and maternal deaths are investigated and discussed.
Results of this survey are compared with a survey of clinics undertaken in 1997 and the findings indicate improvements in some areas. Seventy one percent of all clinics have a functioning telephone in 1998 as compared with 63% in 1997 and 83% of clinics provide family planning services on a daily basis in 1998 as compared with 72% in 1997.
The South African Health Review is accompanied by Technical Reports that provide more detail in the areas of financing, the private sector, pharmacy and service delivery in hospitals and clinics.
In an attempt to measure in part the progress (or lack of progress) towards equity one step would be to measure the quality of service provision at the community (primary care) level. This would give an overview of the disparities between as well as in provinces, and between rural, urban and peri-urban parts of the country.