Eastern Cape healthcare stays afloat by begging for drugs on WhatsApp

31 August 2017 - 09:19
By Dave Chambers
Eastern Cape health workers have resorted to using WhatsApp to source out-of-stock drugs. File photo.
Image: Brent Lewin Eastern Cape health workers have resorted to using WhatsApp to source out-of-stock drugs. File photo.

Health workers have found a new use for the ubiquitous WhatsApp group — they use it to source out-of-stock drugs.

Academics investigating “stock-outs” at public health facilities in the Eastern Cape uncovered a “thriving parallel economy in medicines supply”.

Rebecca Hodes‚ from the University of Cape Town‚ said: “When a clinic was running low on a particular drug or a piece of equipment‚ the staff member tasked with managing medical supplies would contact a staff member from another clinic — often via WhatsApp — and ask if they could ‘lend’ supply.

“Healthcare workers used personal resources to tap into these networks‚ including personal cellphones and airtime. This practice of sharing essential medicines happened ‘all the time’‚ according to the head pharmacist at a district hospital.

“Staff reported that through this exchange they were ‘almost always’ able to deal with the shortages they faced.”

South Africa
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Hodes‚ from UCT’s Aids and Society Research Unit‚ reports her team’s findings in the September edition of the South African Medical Journal‚ saying health workers have set up “vast networks of alternative communication and action” to deal with frequent shortages of medical supplies.

“All five facilities in this study [two clinics‚ a community health centre‚ a district hospital and a tertiary hospital] reported frequent stock-outs of numerous products on the essential medicines list‚” she said.

“The front-line workers did not generally report drug shortages using official channels if they could access top-up supplies from a neighbouring facility. Only stock-outs of supplies that were ‘unborrowable’ were reported.”

But “borrowing” was not an accurate description of the practice. Said Hodes: “As the head pharmacist at a public hospital explained‚ ‘We say borrowed‚ but no one ever returns’.”

The academic researchers said the informal economy was “far from the ideal of robust procurement and regulation”‚ and was premised on “high degrees of personal motivation among staff‚ their ability to design‚ implement and adapt contingency plans‚ their collegiality and their investment in providing continuous‚ reliable treatment”.