Appearing briefly before the Human Rights Commission, the KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC said that the problems that caused the present oncology crisis predated his time as MEC, and that progress was being made: ‘I can’t say that we’ve got a Ferrari … but we’ve got a car that works’.
KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo and his acting head of the provincial health department, Dr Musa Gumede, appeared in front of the Human Rights Commission of South Africa (HRCSA) in Braamfontein to account for the ongoing oncology crisis in the province. News24 reports that Dhlomo and Dr Musa Gumede were summoned to appear before the commission on Monday after investigations got under way into alleged violations of the rights of cancer patients. The two hospitals that formed part of the investigation in the province are Addington Hospital and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital.
It was previously reported that the provincial department had decided to partner with private hospitals and specialists to address the issue. On Monday, Gumede said: “We are making efforts and strides towards that direction. I can’t say that we’ve got a Ferrari at the moment, but we’ve got a car that works, and people can make use of it.”
He said the department had two students currently finishing their training in the Western Cape and the Free State, who could hopefully soon be employed by the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department to fill vacancies in the oncology department. Gumede added that the “exodus” in the department was as a result of the breakdown in the relationship between the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department and the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Medical School.
He said the department had filled eight of the nine head of department vacancies in critical cancer positions, and that only the oncology department position still needed to be filled.
The report says Dhlomo, who only appeared briefly, said the problems in the department predated his time as MEC. He said he had engaged with the national Health Department over how to deal with the issue. A report on the matter is expected to be finalised soon.
The Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) spokesperson on health, Dr Imran Keeka, said the opposition party would continue to pursue a case of culpable homicide against Dhlomo. “He must not be allowed to escape justice. The DA will not relent until there is justice and until such time as there is an improvement in oncology services in our province,” Keeka said.
Keeka urged the commission not to allow Dhlomo to escape justice “for his uncaring and lethargic response”, which had led to “the deaths of possibly more than 500 cancer patients”. “The MEC’s lack of interest in resolving this crisis has also added to backlogs and death. The DA is advised that an oncologist at Grey’s Hospital has recently resigned. This will only worsen the already seven-month backlog to access radiotherapy at that facility,” he is quoted in the report as saying.
Gumede told the SAHRC hearing that close to R40m has been spent in the past two years to try and deal with the backlog of cancer treatment for patients in the province. Eyewitness News reports that Gumede delivered a presentation to SAHRC chair Professor Bongani Majola that lasted more than two hours. “This R40m is money that we’ve put on the programme to try and reduce the backlog. We’re going to spend R20m on repairing the machines and we’re budgeting R75m in the next 18 months.”
A report by the commission found that the department violated patients’ rights to access healthcare services because officials failed to comply with the norms and standards set out in the law. The report also found that the measures the department committed to implement in efforts to end the crisis were “inadequate and unacceptable”.
Gumede has told the SAHRC that cancer patients are made to wait six to seven months for a gynaecological appointment at the province’s hospitals. He told Majola there are different waiting periods for appointments and treatments at KwaZulu-Natal hospitals that specifically deal with cancer patients.
The report says Majola and other officials have been questioning Gumede about the long waiting times and the effect this might have on patients. The Breathe Health Foundation’s Louise Turner says some patients die before they’re able to see a doctor. “The worst-case scenario is that patients go home because they’re not getting treatment and after a year or two, they die.”
Gumede has also been questioned about revelations that Durban’s public oncology services are in crisis with doctors leaving government hospitals for the private sector because of unsatisfactory working conditions, including the lack of working equipment.
In a recent parliamentary reply to questions by the opposition DA, Dhlomo allegedly confirmed that 349 patients died at Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital from cancer in 2015 and 2016. A further 150 deaths were reported at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg during the same period.
A Daily News report says that the numbers, according to the DA at the time, did not account for the patients who died at home and in care facilities.