The Constitutional Court’s recent ruling against sections 36 to 40 of the National Health Act, which was signed into law in March 2014, is a crucial development to prevent the emigration of thousands of healthcare professionals out of South Africa.
According to Graham Anderson, Profmed CEO and Principal Officer, the provisions in the Act were designed to control the geographical areas in which South African healthcare professionals are allowed to work. “The act was signed into law with the intention of spreading healthcare access to under-serviced rural and outlying areas; however, an unintended consequence was that it may have acted as a catalyst for the exodus of vital healthcare workers out of the country,” says Anderson.
According to the provisions, in order to practice within a certain area healthcare professionals such as dentists and doctors would require specific permission from the Department of Health via a ‘certificate of need’, to prove that their operation in an area was justifiable.
“One of the key flaws in the Act was that it automatically categorised all healthcare professionals and establishments as retrospective criminal offenders, as they did not already possess the required certificate,” says Anderson. “However, the compulsory document was not even available to professionals as it hadn’t been developed, meaning they were unable to comply with the Act regardless.”
Anderson notes that the contentious law had introduced a wave of uncertainty among various healthcare professionals, many of whom were beginning to consider their options outside of South African borders.
“This spreading sentiment was deeply concerning, as these professionals’ skills are vital,” says Anderson, who adds that the Act was also proving to be a massive barrier to international healthcare professionals bringing their expertise into South Africa. “The Constitutional Court’s eventual ruling of the act as ‘irrational and invalid’ has been a huge relief for both industry leaders and the general public.”
Anderson notes, however, that the objective of the Act is by no means off of the legislative table, and he expects in the near future that government will find alternative – albeit less harsh – sanctions, such as fines, to achieve its ideals.
“There is undoubtedly an urgent need for proper healthcare services to be provided in South Africa’s under-served areas. This is a situation that needs to be taken seriously by both the government and the industry at large,” says Anderson.
“It is all of our responsibility to work towards finding a solution such as incentivisation structures, rather than penalties, which may encourage qualified professionals to deliver crucial healthcare services in these areas while still enabling other healthcare professionals to access a reasonable income.”