Two ways corporate South Africa can change the face of healthcare

08 January 2015 | Judith Matthis | Opinion

As debates rage about whether healthcare professionals should receive their training in private medical schools, and about the politics of co-ordinating national health insurance, the spotlight is once again on South Africa’s healthcare system – and how it can be improved.

South Africa spends a disproportionately high percentage of its GDP on healthcare – more than 8%, higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommended 5%. Despite this, the outcomes are still very poor, and the country’s public healthcare system is stretched and under-resourced.

While the state contributes some 40% to all healthcare expenditure, the country’s public health sector caters to about 80% of the population. Added to this, say government statistics, the doctor-to-patient ratio in the public sector is estimated at 0.77 per 1,000 – that’s just one practising doctor for every 4,219 people.

For these figures to improve – and it is vital that they do – private sector corporate social investment and support is essential. Corporates have the responsibility and ability to develop South Africa’s health sector by working with existing entities to address the two most important obstacles facing the industry: the shortage of healthcare workers and the lack of access to healthcare in rural areas.

The high cost of training doctors and nurses has contributed to the shortage of healthcare professionals in South Africa. This shortage is made even worse by other countries offering better working conditions and more money to these professionals. South Africa is no newcomer to the “brain drain” phenomenon and, for years, has lost many of its most skilled healthcare workers to foreign shores.

The current debate around private facilities for training doctors is therefore misplaced, and should rather be about getting more doctors trained in existing facilities. Ultimately, this comes down to making money available.

The private sector should provide bursaries for promising youths. In return, trained professionals should return to their home communities and use their skills to benefit South Africa’s healthcare sector – particularly in rural areas. Businesses can create these bursaries independently, or can partner with existing governmental departments and non-governmental organisations that already undertake similar work.

Rural South Africa is most acutely affected by a lack of access to healthcare. Many healthcare workers are deterred by the isolation involved in working in these areas, and assistance – either in the form of government dispensation or, alternatively, through private sector support – would go a long way in addressing the issue. The development of accommodation for healthcare workers, for example, has successfully made make rural work more attractive and has contributed towards building strong medical communities in remote areas.

Mobile clinics and testing stations, as well as community healthcare workers, further help to improve access to healthcare in rural areas. Community healthcare workers enable more skilled professionals to focus on specialised problems by providing people with the knowledge and resources necessary to stay healthy and catch illnesses early. These healthcare workers, however, are usually poorly paid and face very stressful working conditions. Direct funding for these workers or the organisations that represent would help their efforts to bear fruit.

While there are clearly many ways for investors to participate in uplifting the healthcare sector in South Africa, initiatives should not take place in isolation or without an understanding of the broader context. The creation of forums, where investors in similar sectors can pool ideas and resources and work together to create innovative strategies that will make a true impact on the overall health of society, is of paramount importance.

By helping to address the shortage of healthcare workers and the lack of access to healthcare in rural areas through strategic investment and effective partnerships, corporates are in a position to improve the state of healthcare in South Africa.