All well and good, Motsoaledi, now where are your doctors?
Oncology machines worth R40m each in state hospitals stand idle because there aren't enough cancer doctors
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says there are at least 15 oncology machines worth R40-million each waiting to be used at public hospitals – but he is still looking for cancer doctors to operate them.
“One of the pilot programmes of the National Health Insurance is to clear the oncology backlog, especially in KwaZulu-Natal,” he said in an interview on Thursday.
Some provinces have no oncology specialists (KwaZulu-Natal now has just one to service 1.3 million cancer patients) to use the linear accelerators collecting dust in state hospitals.
“We will rely on private oncologists to come and use the equipment. Steve Biko Academic has got more oncology equipment, and linear accelerators, than any hospital in the country, private or public. There are four bunkers (for the radiation machines) there, and the fifth bunker is being finished now.“Charlotte Maxeke has four, Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals [in the Western Cape] have three each. And two in Addington in KwaZulu-Natal. We have repaired the old one; it is working and a new one is being tested. All that is needed is oncologists,” said Motsoaledi.
He added that the machines are so costly that no private hospital has more than one because the returns are low on treatment.
“Can the specialists come to our hospitals and use it, and help us clear the backlog?” Motsoaledi asked.
The minister has blamed the oncology crisis and issues of provinces on irregular “procurement, cronyism and patronage”.
“The provinces say the maintenance contracts for these machines must be given to local people. Will you take a Mercedes-Benz to a local mechanic who cannot read the high powered computers? These are state-of-the-art oncology machines, so we need to get the right people to maintain them. We have no option but to give the person who maintains it a five-year contract. In health the first consideration is to the patient and nobody else. Te rest will follow,” he said.But Lauren Pretorius from advocacy group Campaigning for Cancer said it might be too little too late.
“This crisis is something the department knew about for 10 years. At policy level a lot has happened but why did it take so long? How do we save a person on the ground, the mother affected by cancer who didn’t get treatment and whose cancer has advanced?”
She said Motsoaledi’s challenge was to get private-sector doctors to stay in the system, or find new state doctors.
“This may help the patients coming into the treatment facility in the short term. He needs to make it attractive for the doctors to stay in the state and give them the tools to stay. It isn’t about money, but access to the right medicines, the queues and waiting lists, the bureaucracy that makes doctors operate with one hand tied behind their backs,” said Pretorius.Lorraine Govender, national advocacy co-ordinator for Cansa, said in terms of the KZN oncology crisis, the current backlog will be addressed through the acquisition of the new linear accelerator at Addington Hospital, the private partnership with the Wits Consortium, and the newly qualified oncologist who is in place.
“It will take a good few months before the backlog is addressed in KZN alone. Sadly, we’ve already lost a number of patients due to the long waiting periods,” said Govender.
“With regards to the national oncology crisis it’s difficult for us to comment unless we see the plans in action. The crisis in KZN lasted for over three years before we saw the fruition of our advocacy efforts working together with the Cancer Alliance.
“We need the whole consortium of oncology care in order to address the crisis from early detection, screening, oncology treatment and palliative care.”
Govender said patients have been waiting for long periods for treatment nationally, and there are provinces with no treatment centres.
“More and more patients need to be treated. We support the minister’s proposal and look forward to immediate action to save the lives of oncology patients.”