(Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash)
  • While Netcare and Life Healthcare are still allowing non-urgent elective surgeries, Mediclinic decided to stop these operations last week.
  • Across the world, many hospitals are banning these surgeries to preserve scarce stocks of masks and gloves.
  • Also, healthcare workers and patients are at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus with more people in a hospital.
  • Meanwhile SA's financial watchdog is outraged by insurers who have declared nurses who collect blood for insurance contracts as essential service providers.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider's home page

While hospitals across the world have banned all non-urgent, elective surgeries in the face of the coronavirus crisis – two of SA’s largest private hospital groups, Netcare and Life Healthcare, are still allowing these operations.

Only Mediclinic has decided to stop all elective surgeries at its hospitals.

In the US, president Trump has called on hospitals to stop these operations – which include cataract operations, ligament repairs, knee and hip replacements – immediately, while the UK and Australian public hospitals have banned it already. In Gauteng state hospitals, these operations have been suspended for more than a week. 

The ban is aimed at protecting doctors and nurses – who are crucial in the fight against coronavirus - from an increased risk of contracting the disease from contact with these patients. Also, these elective surgery patients are at an increased risk of contracting coronavirus, which could add to infection numbers.

Importantly, elective surgeries can add to the burden on healthcare resources, including using scarce stocks of masks and gloves, and keep beds occupied ahead of an expected surge in serious coronavirus cases in South Africa.

Dr Stefan Smuts, chief clinical officer at Mediclinic Southern Africa, described the group’s decision to ban elective surgeries as a “drastic measure” which will help manage the risk to patients, staff and doctors. "It is important to limit the movement of people during the lockdown period as far as possible,” says Smuts.  Procedures relating to emergency, life-saving or chronic medical attention will continue.

But Netcare has not yet decided to stop elective surgeries – it is up to the discretion of the treating doctor, for now.

"We have started to see the transfer of private patients from public to private hospital and are very sensitive to the potential increased demand on the healthcare system. At this stage, however, Netcare has not taken the decision to cancel elective surgeries,” the group's medical director Dr Anchen Laubscher said.  

Life Healthcare has also not stopped surgeries, and says it is a clinical decision of the treating doctor.

“If surgery or a procedure has been planned, patients should discuss the surgery and its associated risks with their doctor, before the admission date, especially in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Dr Charl van Loggerenberg, general manager of emergency medicine at Life Healthcare.

While some bodies who represent surgeons, including the Federation of South African Surgeons and the  Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons of Southern Africa were clear in their support of postponing elective and non-essential surgery, the South African Orthopaedic Association seemed more open to elective surgeries, suggesting that it would be up to each of its members to assess the risks.

Insurers reprimanded

Meanwhile, the country’s financial watchdog has slammed insurers who have declared travelling nurses – who are collecting bloods samples as part of insurance contracts - as essential services in the lockdown period.

“This not only exposes these nurses and customers unnecessarily but detracts from the ability of laboratories to focus efforts on the pandemic,” the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) in a strongly-worded statement.

"Given the burden on our laboratories for the testing of Covid-19, it is of paramount importance that no additional stress is placed on the medical fraternity. The FSCA views this conduct in a very serious light."

- The article appeared on March 30. After contacting Netcare, the hospital group informed Business Insider on April 10 that it changed its directive to postpone elective surgeries, starting from March 31.

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