Hospital staff shortage is dangerous

October 28, 2008

Hospital staff shortage is dangerous

Tamar Kahn
Science and Health Editor

CAPE TOWN A whopping 37801 doctors and nurses posts are empty in public hospitals and clinics, according to written answers to parliamentary questions asked by the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The figures highlight the desperate staffing situation in the public health sector, which has struggled to retain healthcare workers even as the burden of disease soars with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Health facilities are also struggling to cope with the victims of violence and trauma, and the growing incidence of lifestyle-associated diseases such as diabetes.

Staff leave to take up more lucrative posts in the private sector, or emigrate in search of a better life. More than half of SA?s doctors have given serious thought to quitting SA, largely through fear of violent crime, according to recent research.

Hospitals are running at danger level, said the IFPs health spokeswoman, Ruth Rabinowitz.

The replies give the number of vacant posts for professional nurses as 16362, staff nurses 5752, nursing assistants 10403, medical doctors 3632 and specialists 1652, and provide a detailed provincial breakdown of the figures. Hardest hit is Eastern Cape, with almost 10000 unfilled posts.

The shortages are felt across the country, with poorer provinces and rural areas particularly hard hit. Health-e news service reported last week how the dearth of doctors able to treat multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) was putting lives at risk. In Free State, for example, there was only one full time MDR-TB doctor, employed at the province?s specialist unit at Thaba Nchu.

The government has tried to retain staff in the public sector by introducing a new occupation-specific wage dispensation for nurses, but the programme has increased the financial strain on provincial health departments already overspending on other programmes.

Last week the treasury said it had been forced to allocate an extra R1bn to provinces to help them foot the increased salary bill for the financial year. Provinces faced a cash crunch because they had budgeted for a 7,5% increase in salaries, but the final figure agreed to in the public sector bargaining chamber (after the budget process closed) turned out to be 10,5%.

Overspending in provinces had reached unprecedented levels, Health Minister Barbara Hogan told Parliament last week, noting that higher than expected demand for AIDS drugs had compounded the problems of the large wage bill.

?The paradox is that there is money floating around that can?t be used for the purposes it is needed for,? said Rabinowitz.

Unspent conditional grants for upgrading hospitals had to be returned to the treasury, she said, despite the shortage of funds for other healthcare programmes in the provinces.

~uBUSINESS DAY 27th October

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