Bob Mash | Three health reforms the new government must prioritise for SA

Bob Mash | Three health reforms the new government must prioritise for SAProfessor Bob Mash. (Photo: Division of Family Medicine and Primary Care, Stellenbosch University)
Comment & Analysis

To drum up support as South Africans head to the polls, President Cyril Ramaphosa reportedly vowed to “end the apartheid that remains in healthcare” when he hit the campaign trail. Professor Bob Mash has three health reforms on his wishlist for the incoming administration to prioritise.


South Africa is battling a quadruple burden of disease that includes HIV and tuberculosis (TB), non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and mental health problems, challenges with maternal and child health, as well as substantial trauma from interpersonal violence and road traffic accidents.

At least 80% of the population is dependent on public sector health services. However, currently, we are in a state of austerity, with substantial cuts to the health budget that undermine years of work to improve the quality and coverage of health services.

In this context, what health reforms can be recommended?

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) told us that we need primary healthcare “now more than ever” and recommended four health reforms. Universal health coverage has become a mantra for governments and implies that everyone should have easy access to quality primary care without any significant financial barriers. They also recommended that services should move away from a focus on a few priority diseases (such as HIV) and selected health programmes (such as immunisations). Rather, services should be integrated and built around the needs of people, across the life course, and in a comprehensive approach that spans health promotion, disease prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliative care.

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The WHO also recommended that integrated primary care be combined with essential public health functions. In other words, we don’t just worry about the people who enter the doors of the clinic but think about the health needs of all the people living in the catchment area. Finally, they recommended transformation of the leadership in health to make it more collaborative and to dialogue on policy with multiple stakeholders.

In South Africa, our last set of reforms were known as primary healthcare re-engineering. This led to the establishment of specialist clinical teams in each district to improve maternal and child healthcare, the establishment of teams of community health workers to extend the work of the clinic into the community and a focus on better health services  – like health screenings and HPV vaccinations – at primary and secondary schools.

Of course, the other major policy reform that is still on the table is the introduction of national health insurance (NHI) to improve health equity and universal health coverage.

Going forward, three areas need urgent reform and attention.

More family physicians

Firstly, notwithstanding the 2030 Human Resources for Health Strategy, South Africa does not really have a comprehensive policy on the human resources for health that are needed. Thinking on primary healthcare and district hospitals has been particularly flawed in relation to family physicians. South Africa created a new medical speciality of family medicine in 2008 which has led to the training of family physicians in all nine medical schools. These are doctors who spend four years of additional training to be specialists in family medicine and to work in primary healthcare and district hospitals.

Family physicians are known to improve the quality of primary and district hospital care. They bring expertise closer to the community, capacitate the whole clinical team, improve quality, patient safety and reduce litigation. Adding a family physician to the clinical team is a cost-effective intervention. Despite this, only one province has really gone to scale with the employment of family physicians. This is a wasted opportunity and a low-hanging fruit in terms of reform.

The South African Academy of Family Physicians has a medium-term goal of one family physician at every community health centre, every district hospital and subdistrict (without a health centre). To achieve this, we need provinces to incrementally create posts over the next 10 years and to support an increase in the number of training opportunities.

Community-orientated primary care

As previously mentioned, we have introduced community health worker (CHW) teams into primary healthcare across the country. Unfortunately, many of these teams are dysfunctional due, for example, to an absence of supportive supervision, lack of resources or poor collaboration with the local primary care facility. Often, they are regarded as just extensions of the facility-based services and expected to perform tasks allocated by the clinic nurses.

The presence of these community health worker teams is, however, a huge opportunity to introduce community-orientated primary care (COPC). This model of primary care makes the switch to a focus on the health needs of the whole population served. Introducing COPC requires commitment to nine essential principles for organising primary healthcare.

Firstly, there must be a clear delineation of the community served and CHWs given responsibility for designated households (typically 250 households per CHW).  Facility-based and community-based health care workers must operate as one multidisciplinary team and offer a comprehensive approach as described earlier. The team must make a careful analysis of the health needs in their community and also the resources available (government, non-government and private, health and social services) to address these needs.

At this local level, the team should prioritise the health needs in a participatory process with community and other stakeholders, and develop interventions tailored to their community. This process requires a commitment to community and stakeholder engagement. It also requires data to provide information on the health needs and this can come from households, facilities, and other sources. Finally, the service should be built around the needs of people and ensure that equity is improved.

The implementation of CHWs across the country needs to be reframed within a clearer policy on COPC. One province has already published its intention to make COPC the model of care and other provinces have examples of best practice.

Honing in on diabetes, hypertension, and mental health care

The final area that needs reform with more resources and attention is non-communicable diseases – particularly diabetes, hypertension, and mental healthcare. Historically, we have focused on the challenges of HIV and TB in service delivery, research, and donor funding. We have also been mindful of the need to improve maternal and child health.

Diabetes is now the leading cause of death in women in South Africa. Hypertension, heart disease and stroke are together the largest cause of deaths across all causes. Mental health, substance abuse and psychosocial problems may not cause death, but are a huge cause of morbidity and illness.

There is a danger of inequity by disease, and we need to ensure that we allocate resources commensurate to the problem of non-communicable diseases. In particular, we need to ensure that we have patient education and counselling that empowers people for lifestyle change, self-management and better mental health. Interventions are also needed in communities and the population to make healthier choices (on problem-solving, physical activity, healthy eating, tobacco smoking, alcohol and substance use) the easier choice.

Improving people’s health and healthcare is essential for sustainable development in South Africa. As the country heads to the polls, the incoming government would do well to keep this in mind. Such reforms will lead to higher quality primary healthcare and help pave the way for the proposed national health insurance.

*Mash is the Executive and Divisional Head of the Department of Family and Emergency Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Stellenbosch University.

Note: The views expressed in this opinion piece are not necessarily shared by the Spotlight editors. Spotlight is committed to publishing a variety of views and facilitating informed discussion that deepens public understanding of health issues.

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