Xolise Sam watched his sister, Thumeka, writhe in pain for almost a week before she died in Frere Hospital’s Ward Four. “(Dispatchers) refused to send an ambulance and ordered us to send her to a local clinic because ambulances weren’t available,” Xolisile is quoted in a Health-e News report as saying. “They said ambulances were for injured patients and that they weren’t for terminally-ill patients.” He was testifying on the first day of a two-day Human Rights Commission (HRC) hearing into allegedly poor emergency medical services in the Eastern Cape.
The hearing featured community and expert testimonies on the impact of the poor availability of emergency medical services (EMS) and planned patient transport in the province and the HRC has 60 days in which to make recommendations.
Dr Prinitha Pillay from the Rural Health Advocacy Project is serving as an external panellist with the commission. Following the Sams’ testimonies, she asked how many people in the East London auditorium had called for an ambulance that never came and as many as 25% of community members raised their hands.
Nomfundo Mbelebele testified that she watched her father succumb to cancer after EMS dispatchers told her that his only chance of getting an ambulance would involve him walking from their rural homestead to the nearest road.
Nomalinge James is a community health worker with the Hamburg-based non-profit organisation, the Keiskamma Trust. She says the people who are told to walk to the road to EMS vehicles are the lucky ones.
While Department of Health officials attended the East London meeting to present plans to improve services, the MEC of Provincial Planning and Finances Sakhumzi Somyo failed to attend the meeting. Human Rights Commissioner Pregs Govender has promised that the oversight body will now subpoena Somyo to appear before it. Eastern Cape Health Department superintendent-general Dr Thobile Mbengashe said he was moved by the community testimonies
In a presentation to the hearing, the Eastern Cape Department of Health reiterated information released late last year that it had leased about 110 new ambulances for its fleet. However, it is unclear how many of these ambulances are designated for EMS transport as the department also cited that 40 ambulances had been earmarked for obstetric services and a further 70 designated for inter-facility transfers.
The department also reported that it had 416 ambulances in the provinces but it is unclear how many of these are function as department representatives also reported that 157 of these ambulances were “non-compliant.” The department also admitted that its 10 ambulance call centres remain underfunded and poorly coordinated.
The report says the milieu of unclear figures presented mirrors successive policy documents including service delivery improvements plans and annual reports that report inconsistent targets as well as purported outcomes of EMS services.Full Health-e report