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HomeFocusHalf of SA’s forensic pathology units fail competency tests

Half of SA’s forensic pathology units fail competency tests

Nearly half of the country’s forensic pathology units have failed to achieve competency certification – with just three out of 16 in the Eastern Cape actually making the grade; an indictment of lack of oversight and governance, and despite the overwhelming crime rate in South Africa, notes MedicalBrief.

This, as the pathology labs struggle with a mounting backlog of cases, with toxicology cases alone rising to 38 974 toxicology backlog cases, leading to families waiting for months before they can bury their loved ones.

The DA, in a statement on the Politicsweb site, says regular inspections are supposed to ensure a number of health, hygiene and safety standards are maintained, but the latest checks uncovered poor and failing infrastructure, as well as unhealthy and unsafe conditions, particularly in the poorer, more rural provinces.

Only 53% of the total 117 units countrywide obtained certificates of competence. In the Eastern Cape, where only three of the 16 provincial units have been certified compliant, in seven of those it was found personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff was not up to standard, placing them at health risk.

In Mpumalanga, nine of its 21 units were non-compliant, with infrastructure described as “poorly maintained”.

A similar situation was found in in KwaZulu-Natal, where 10 of the units failed certification because of poorly maintained infrastructure.

In some provinces, regular inspections have not taken place at all, including at a third of Limpopo’s units, and five of the seven in the North West. In the case of the latter, only two facilities have been certified, with five of them having inadequate PPE.

The DA’s shadow minister for health Michele Clarke said the revelations should be a source of embarrassment for the National Department of Health.

“It is clearly failing in its responsibilities to ensure compliance with regulatory standards, including ensuring that non-compliant facilities have implemented plans to make turnarounds,” she said.

“Inadequate forensic units also hamper the work of the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the National Prosecuting Authority.”

With violent crime escalating – more than 7 700 South Africans were murdered in the past year – she said the findings “do not bode well for our healthcare system’s capacity in assisting law enforcement to investigate these cases”.

Bereaved families are also feeling the impact. Health e-news reports that Elizabeth Simelane from Soshanguve, north of Pretoria has been waiting for the state to release her son’s body for burial.

“I am old and very sick. My fear is dying while his body lies in a government morgue,” she says.

The remains of her son, Steve, have been lying at Pretoria Forensic Pathology Service. The 41-year-old’s decomposed body was found in the Zambezi area outside Tshwane on 2 December last year.

The bereaved mother has been told that her son’s body can’t be released for burial until a post-mortem is completed. However, the Gauteng department says Simelane’s case is delayed due to outstanding DNA results and not a toxicology report.

A senior official in the Gauteng Health Department says Simelane’s case is not an isolated one.

“We receive a number of complaints from families who cannot bury their members because of pending toxicology cases,” he says.

This is the situation thousands of families like the Simelane’s currently face as the country is battling with 38 974 toxicology backlog cases. Samples collected are meant to be tested within 90 days. Tests not completed within this period are classified as backlog.

The official Health-e spoke to says that the backlog dates as far back as 2007.

Toxicology testing is done by the National Health Laboratory Services’ (NHLS) forensic chemistry laboratories.

“The results from the toxicology test helps the forensic pathologist analyse the evidence, ascertain the cause of death and prepare an autopsy report,” explains NHLS spokesperson Mzimasi Gcukumana.

There are only four forensic chemistry laboratories in South Africa. These are in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria. The Durban lab is not currently performing toxicology tests, as plans are underway to expand the facility. So, in effect, only three laboratories in the country are conducting toxicology tests. These labs service the police, mortuaries, health departments, municipalities and the NPA nationwide.

“The current backlog at the Cape Town forensic chemistry laboratory is 6 792 cases; with Johannesburg and Pretoria laboratories at 15 358 and 16 824 cases respectively,” says Gcukumana.

The NPA in Gauteng could not provide the number of cases delayed by toxicology reports.

“We do not keep records of these statistics. However, we can confirm that toxicology backlogs do cause delays in criminal cases and we are working closely with the stakeholders to resolve such challenges,” spokesperson Phindi Louw says.

Gcukamama says strategies are in place to reduce the backlog.

“To contribute to the increase in laboratory processing, we will focus on increasing laboratory space availability throughout the laboratories. We also aim at having functional analytical instrument availability in sufficient numbers and appropriate staff complement. We will make use of overtime and shift systems for the best possible human resource management,” he explains.


PoliticsWeb article – Half forensic pathology units denied certificates of competence (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Gauteng Health forensic backlog dates back to 2007


Forensic pathology staff protest conditions


Gauteng forensic pathology workers down tools

















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