Maria's* 73-year-old uncle suffers from lung cancer. He lives in Qhoboshane, a small village in the Eastern Cape where accessing healthcare is near impossible because of the distances patients have to travel.
To receive treatment he has to walk 3km to catch a taxi. This takes almost three hours as he needs to stop and rest regularly. His journey by taxi takes almost an hour because of the terrible condition of the roads. When Maria and her uncle finally arrive at a public hospital they stand in a queue for more than four hours.
Maria's story is unfortunately not unique. Millions of South Africans have to travel great distances and stand in long queues to access healthcare.
The biggest challenge facing public healthcare in South Africa today is the shortage of healthcare workers. There is an estimated 83 043 shortfall of all health professionals in the country. The majority of South Africa's public sector doctors work in urban centres. The result is that the deficit in health workers is most severe in rural areas where 43.6% of the country's population live, but only 12% of doctors and 19% of nurses work.
The enormous staff shortages certainly have an impact on the care offered to patients. Doctors and nurses are overworked and burned out and as a result can't always offer quality care to patients.
The shortage is partly caused by medical schools not significantly increasing their graduate output. Since the 1980s, the country's eight medical schools only produced, on average, about 1 300 doctors annually. Thousands of our doctors are also working abroad. In fact, there are more South African doctors working abroad than there are working in the public sector in South Africa.
South Africa urgently needs more doctors as we start to implement the ambitious National Health Insurance.
One way of solving the doctor shortage crisis is to attract more healthcare workers back to the public sector. Working in the public sector can often be more rewarding than working in the private sector. It gives doctors the opportunity to make a real difference in improving the quality of care offered to millions of South Africans. Doctors can experience a more relaxed lifestyle and can also gain valuable medical experience.
A doctor placed by Africa Health Placements at a public hospital in Mpumalanga in 2011 says he has never been happier. He worked in the private sector for almost ten years.
"I love working here. There is more to life than the business side. When you treat patients here, you focus on healthcare and not on a financial transaction.
"There's not the stress of dealing with administrative issues like accounts. I don't wake up stressed about work. At the end of the day, I'm a happy person."
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