South Africa needs to stop talking about universal access to healthcare and start implementing projects and programmes that will make a real difference in people’s lives now.

This is according to a high-level panel discussion of chief executives from the private healthcare sector who were responding to the immediate National Health Insurance’s (NHI) priorities at the Hospital Association of South Africa (HASA) conference currently underway at the Cape Town International Centre.

Speaking at the conference, Advisor on NHI, Vishal Brijlal, outlined the priorities as maternal health, the screening and treatment of paediatric cancer, school health, and care for the elderly and the disabled and mental health screening.

Brijlal pointed out that having a policy was not sufficient – policy needed to be followed by planning, implementation, and cooperation: “We will not just wake up one morning and there will be universal healthcare.”

CEO of Discovery Health, Dr Jonathan Broomberg, said the basic principal of universal healthcare is access to healthcare of decent quality, and that this right was being denied to many South Africans.

“There are literally hundreds of variations of universal healthcare, and each system has to evolve to address current realities in the country the system is being implemented. The danger is we continue to have theoretical debates and do not do what we need. We are out of time and cannot afford to lose this opportunity,” said Dr Broomberg.

Role of private sector

According to Netcare Group CEO, Dr Richard Friedland, all efforts to build a sustainable society would stumble without a strong and sustainable healthcare system – and that the South African system is “incredibly” unequal, but that the widespread knowledge gained from local private hospitals international operations are invaluable to South African healthcare reform. As an example, he cited the case study of Netcare’s United Kingdom group reducing cataract treatments from more than a day to mere hours, using mobile clinics and doctors with deep experience in this procedure.

Meanwhile, CEO of Mediclinic Southern Africa, Koert Pretorius, said the private sector could offer its spare capacity to the public sector and could offer to treat a percentage of prioritised cases at a lower cost, and it could focus its attention on rural areas, in schools, and support or manage some primary healthcare clinics.

Pretorius also introduced research conducted amongst a sample of people earning R6,400to R16,000 (approximately representative of a national population of about seven million) that shows that this group, who has a high incidence of non-communicable diseases, are willing to pay up to R350 per month for primary care. This group could be covered for 45-50 conditions at this payment, which could represent 85% of basic healthcare needs.

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