South Africa’s R2.4 billion doctor problem

 ·22 Apr 2024

The government requires R2.4 billion to fill over 2,000 posts in the health sector, but thousands more doctors are not waiting around – especially as the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme still looms.

According to the Department of Health, there are currently 2,012 unfunded vacant medical doctor posts in the health sector across South Africa’s nine provinces, and the government requires R2.4 billion to fill them

This number excludes other categories of health professionals, such as nurses, pharmacists, radiographers, and dentists.

Earlier this year, it was reported that nearly 700 South African medical doctors had not been able to find a job in the public sector since qualifying.

The health department has consistently stated that it cannot afford all of these placements due to shrinking health budgets, rising salaries, and high medical negligence claims payouts.

Since these reports, Health Minister Joe Phaala said that the number of unemployed doctors has decreased, largely thanks to an over R3.7 billion boost from the treasury.

Despite these remarks, it’s clear that this is still not enough, considering the stated shortfall in the health sector, with budgetary constraints remaining an issue.

It is also clear that qualified healthcare professionals are not waiting for the government to find the funding.

Thousands of South African doctors are looking elsewhere, and the possibility of the NHI scheme is another motivating factor.

Canadian immigration consultant Nicholas Avramis said there had been a notable surge in the number of South African professionals applying to move abroad.

He highlighted that his offices have flagged a 31% increase in the number of Canadian work permit applications processed by South Africans wanting to leave.

Avramis noted that well over 4,000 immigration applications were processed by the end of 2023 (more than 1,000 over the previous year), while his offices had received around 17,000 enquiries from South Africans looking to move since January 2023.

He added that most applications are submitted by healthcare workers – followed by trades and businesses.

While I can’t confirm that South Africa is facing a brain drain in my sole capacity, I can say you are seeing an exodus of professionals in the healthcare sector,” said Avramis.

Progress is being made

According to SA News, Health Minister Joe Phaahla has assured citizens that the department is working around the clock to address the challenge of unemployed health professionals, including medical doctors who have completed statutory community service programmes. 

“We are working closely with provincial health departments focused on all critical vacant posts to strengthen healthcare delivery and adequately respond to the needs of our people.

“We are making progress in recruiting qualified health professionals across the country,” He said.

“Let me dispel the myths of some critics and allay fears that the department is dragging its feet in recruiting and appointing unemployed health professionals.” 

Meanwhile, the Minister said he was pleased to announce that 2,066 health professionals were appointed nationwide between January and March 2024.

According to Phaahla, there are 1,121 medical officers at Grade 1 entry level, 579 professional nurses, 127 allied health workers, 100 pharmacists, 91 radiographers, 23 dentists and nine environmental health officers. 

“The recruitment processes are continuing in provinces to finalise more appointments scheduled to enable the successful candidates to assume duties in May 2024.” 

The Minister said he continues to work closely with the provincial Health MECs to activate unfunded vacant posts using the allocated additional budget to enable the recruitment of more health workers. 

“We wish to employ as many health professionals as possible to play a meaningful role in the country’s public health system.

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