Health dept is addressing capacity shortages in rural areas

Friday, August 14, 2009
By: 
Gabi Khumalo

Johannesburg - Health Deputy Minister, Dr Molefi Sefularo, says although there is a lack of capacity in state facilities, especially in rural areas, the department is addressing the inequities.

"There are huge inequities in the human resource availability between urban and rural areas in South Africa," he said, speaking at the launch of the Centre for Rural Health of the Witwatersrand Faculty of Health Sciences on Tuesday. 

The centre is to manage the Advocacy Project, which aims to tackle the inequities by achieving measurable improvements in rural health services.

However, the minister ensured that the government was working on turning around the health system and was developing physical infrastructure and establishing health care financing policies to promote equity.

He said that government has paid particular attention to expanding health services to rural, farming and remote areas because their needs were fundamentally different to those in urban areas.

"It is in these areas that you find more vulnerable people who experience a higher level of unemployment or underemployment and have to travel longer distances to the nearest health facilities with higher associated costs than urban areas," said Dr Sefularo.

He said in order to overcome the challenges in rural areas and to ensure equitable distribution of resources, the department needed to focus on improving integrated service delivery through better co-ordination of planning and resource deployment.

"[We need to] realize the constitutional right of the rural poor to health care services," said Dr Sefularo. 

He further conceded that many health programmes consistently experienced shortages of suitable health personnel and that had often been one of the major constraints attributed to programmes that were not accomplishing their intended objectives.

Professor Thomas Norris, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs in the University of Washington who also attended the launch, said the problem of a lack of adequate health workforce in rural areas was not unique to South Africa. 

He said the current system of rural healthcare in South Africa, like the United States and much of the world, was in serious trouble.

Professor Norris noted that South Africa was facing a shortage of rural physicians.

In the five predominantly rural South African provinces, the percentage of South African physicians practicing there is consistently much lower than that province's percentage of the South African population, Professor Norris said.

The university's Advocacy Project would develop an advocacy framework and a structure to drive commitment to addressing issues of inequity, human rights and human development.

Director for the Centre Professor Ian Couper said the university could not ignore the needs of the country and has a mandated duty to train health professionals for its needs. 

"The needs of the health care system are our responsibility to address and not that of the government alone, we have demonstrated as a university that we are up to the challenge of producing a home grown rural health workforce," said Professor Couper.

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