In late November hospital group Life Healtcare quietly launched what it calls "the future of primary healthcare" at a pilot site in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.
The promise: for R300 in cash – or R150 during promotional hours – you can walk in without an appointment and be on your way again (possibly with medicine in hand) in 25 minutes flat.
What we found was a small clinic that looks from the outside like a boutique technology shop, but is actually a high-tech version of a general practitioner's surgery, reimagined as an assembly line.
But rather than being impersonal, the system had a reassuring professionalism about it, and exactly the kind of efficiency you want in some situations. Most notably: when you want to get a sick note quickly and get back into bed, or when you have a simple ailment.
Here is what we found when we visited the MyLife Healthcare Centre pilot site in Johannesburg.
There are humans hanging around, but checking in is self-service. Once you are registered you can, we are told, just walk in and show your face to the camera. There are no queues and no ticketing system; nurses just come and collect the next person in line armed with a photo.
Signing up consists of a couple of screens of questions that capture ID number, cellphone number, and a basic medical history.
In return you get a confirmation SMS.
You can pay in cash, or you can pay by credit card, but you need to pay – there is no claiming from a medical aid for now.
A standard medical exam, with basic medicine such as paracetamol, is R300 all-inclusive, with higher rates depending on the treatment required. That is also what you will pay for the consultation required to be booked off work, or for a routine checkup.
During "healthy hour" (actually two hours, noon to 1PM and 4PM to 5PM every day), that consultation is half price, at R150.
A family-planning consultation, which includes an injectable contraceptive, is a standard R200.
Management of complex, ongoing issues is not on the menu. Instead the Life centre offers quick-turnaround treatment for relatively minor aches and pains and infections, and monitoring of chronic conditions.
What it does offer is what may be the quickest referrals in the business. If x-rays or other imaging is required, the clinic can refer those with the means to pay straight to the Life Brenthurst Clinic a short distance away, and the clinic will draw blood for any required blood test.
(Depending on your medical aid plan and GP, it could even be cheaper to pay the full price of the Life fee for a referral to a specialist than to go to a covered GP, and paying in the portion of the visit not covered by medical aid.)
Our waiting time at mid-morning was effectively zero, so we were collected and ushered to the "vitals pod" before we could even try out the waiting area for comfort.
The pod is exactly what it sounds like: a small room with a bunch of measuring equipment for vital signs (including a cool combination scale that taps you on the top of your head to measure height), where a friendly nurse also asks what, if anything, is the matter.
The measurements are pretty standard, if a slightly higher technology level than is typical in doctor's rooms.
Facing your chair in the vitals pod is a screen with all your details, updated as measurements are taken. You watch, in real time, as your blood pressure and heart rate numbers are added to your file.
You can also watch all comments going in too, as they are typed. The staff tell us that means people correct their spelling on the fly – but it also provides an unusual sense of inclusion and control. Instead of a nurse or doctor punching things you never see into a machine you don't understand, you get the sense you are dealing with a service provider capturing your details on your behalf.
The centre is laid out on the basis that you don't move back to a waiting room, only forward and through the system, hence the two different waiting areas.
Where the vitals pod is set up to capture data, the consultation room is set up for a full examination. It includes all the usual tools of the trade...
... and it is where the finger-prick blood tests are conducted by the nurse practitioner.
The vital-statistics screen follows you into the consultation room, and the senior nurse further updates the file with findings from the examination, again in full, real-time view.
If you are in rude health, or just need a sick note, that senior nurse is the final formal step, but staff tell us the doctor on duty tends to pop in at the end of consultations anyway for a quick chat. Otherwise the doctor gets involved if there is a complex problem, or something requiring complex medication.
While on-site supplies are limited, the clinic issue prescriptions that can be fulfilled by the Clicks pharmacy in the same mall.
The promise is 30 minutes from start to finish, and the goal is 25-minute average consultations, clinic staff tell us – but currently visits are averaging slightly more than that. It really depends on how much you have to say, and how much you like talking about your symptoms. If you just need a checkup and some friendly advice ("watch those fatty foods" in our case), the entire visit can be just 15 minutes.
You can watch Life Healthcare's promotional video for the pilot centre below.
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