7 December 2012

South Africa: Hospitals Fingered Over Cancer Deaths

Two of Gauteng’s largest state hospitals stand accused of delaying the treatment and diagnosis of hundreds of desperately ill cancer patients because of broken machinery – often out of order due to poor maintenance and non-payment of suppliers.

Campaign for Cancer is gathering the stories of cancer sufferers so they can form part of a petition to the government. If the petition doesn’t work, the plan is to bring a class action against the state.

Barnett Fine, a patient at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, died a painful death because the hospital didn’t have the proper medication and the health system had failed to treat him for cancer.

Fine died in September and has now become the face of the campaign, which is demanding better care for cancer sufferers.

Fine’s daughter, Hanna Neuhuis, wants her father’s experience to help in the fight for better treatment. “I would like people to know what happened. I don’t want to be silent and for him to have died for nothing,” she said.

Fine was diagnosed with throat cancer in December last year. In the seven months it took him to die, Neuhuis said, he was turned away from Steve Biko Academic Hospital because of waiting lists and broken radiation machines. When he was close to death, he was prescribed Panado syrup instead of morphine because there was no stock.

The two accused hospitals are Steve Biko Academic and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic.

“The Gauteng government has failed its people,” said Lauren Pretorius from Campaign for Cancer.

“Their track record shows that they are not sufficiently committed to maintaining quality cancer care in public hospitals, and this is unacceptable.”

This year there were confirmed reports of at least 11 radiation machine breakdown incidents at these two hospitals, according to Dot Webb, a programme manager at the organisation. Some of the breakdowns lasted only a few days, but in some cases, machines were offline for weeks at a time.

“According to patients, the equipment would work one day, and then break down for a week or two,” said Webb.

Some reports claim a failure to pay the service provider, Siemens, and not performing regular maintenance on the machines. Other reports claim that radiation sources ran out, while in other cases, the computer server, managed by Siemens, packed up.

“The lack of planning from the provincial hospital chief executives and management structure is a great concern, and oncology is not a priority,” said Linda Greeff, from the organisation People Living with Cancer.

Interruption in cancer treatment could be the difference between life and death.

“Chemotherapy and radiation therapy cannot be interrupted,” said Dr Devan Moodley, a Joburg oncologist.

“Each patient requires full cycles of chemotherapy and radiation, within [specific] time frames, for their treatment to be effective.”

Dr Margie Venter, who is on the oncology advisory team for People Living with Cancer, also raised concern about the interruption of treatment. “Certainly… treatment interruptions of even a few days have a detrimental effect on local control and eventual outcomes of these patients,” she said.

Greeff said: “Sick patients with limited financial resources were required to travel back and forth between their home and the hospital – which is sometimes more than a 100km trip – only to be sent back home without receiving treatment.”

Questions sent to the national Department of Health went unanswered.

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