HEALTH Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has vowed to tackle the negative perceptions over standards and quality of primary healthcare facilities, saying greater utilisation of clinics, alongside a campaign against diseases caused by poor lifestyles, could reduce pressure on overburdened hospitals.
Dr Motsoaledi’s comments come amid media reports of child deaths in some hospitals around the country, seen as indicative of a collapsing national health infrastructure. Critics attribute this to the government’s inadequate policy in the past and administrative inefficiencies.
Addressing the South African National Editors’ Forum meeting at the University of Cape Town on Saturday, Dr Motsoaledi said the government planned to spend billions of rand — almost double the money spent on infrastructure for the 2010 World Cup — in the next five to 10 years, repairing and building new clinics, districts and provincial hospitals
Hospitals that should deal with "serious cases" were being "overloaded", as more than half of the patients had minor problems that could be treated at a primary level, Dr Motsoaledi said.
His department would also increasingly focus on "noncommunicable diseases" caused by smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diet and a lack of exercise. He echoed President ’s call in the state of the nation address last week for South Africans to live healthier lives.
"If we don’t act (including on HIV, tuberculosis, maternal and child death rates and violent deaths), our life expectancy by 2016 will be back to what it was in 1965," he said.
The department intended to introduce regulations that would see companies reduce salt in their products and ban alcohol advertising, among other urgent measures aimed at improving people’s lifestyle choices, Dr Motsoaledi said. Further legislation of the food, beverage and services industry was necessary. "I’m unlikely to make many friends this year."
Early treatment of noncommunicable diseases such as high blood pressure at the primary level could be crucial in reducing deaths caused by diabetes, hypertensive disease and heart disease.
Statistics SA’s mortality report for 2009 indicated deaths from these conditions all increased despite an overall 3,8% decline in mortality.
The Medical Research Council of SA estimated 6,3-million South Africans suffered from high blood pressure, with dietary salt intake widely cited as a major contributor, and the condition was managed properly in only 14% of cases.
Dr Motsoaledi also acknowledged shortages of critical medical staff.
At least R1,2bn had been set aside to revamp nursing colleges and hospital training facilities, he said.
The syllabus would also become a priority as the state wanted thousands of properly trained nurses in various fields such as dental, immunisation and injuries, he said. These nurses would be a main driver of the department’s healthcare strategy.
The strategy aims to ensure all forms of immunisation are properly administered in both rural and urban preprimary and primary schools, that sexual rights and education are taught to children throughout their primary and high school experience, and that adults are first treated for injuries and other minor illnesses at primary healthcare facilities as a norm. Nurses and doctors there would refer seriously ill patients to hospitals, Dr Motsoaledi said.