MEDICINE IN A MESS: Ambulance services ‘filthy’


Dirty ambulances, a shortage of medical equipment and rundown bases were just some of the findings of a week-long investigation by the Daily Dispatch into five Eastern Cape health department emergency medical services (EMS) stations.

Storerooms and ambulances were found to be filthy, medical equipment and medicine was stored in unlocked rooms alongside items such as car tyres, and uncollected medical waste lay infested with maggots.

Frustrated employees said unhygienic and various other poor working conditions were affecting staff morale.

They have threatened to down tools if the situation is not addressed soon, which could endanger the lives of thousands of people who rely on state medical services.

Health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo has denied many of the allegations, accusing “some” staff members of trying to sabotage and tarnish the image of the department.

His full response is carried on page 5.

The Dispatch visited some of the most affected stations including those in Alice, Mdantsane, King William’s Town and Fort Beaufort.

At the Alice and Mdantsane bases, stinking medical waste was found inside ambulances and overflowing from dustbins in the yards.

Paramedics complained that they had to wash ambulances themselves using unsterilised buckets and mops, which was not part of their job description. Both bases were also overgrown with grass.

“We are the department of health but we are the first to fail to comply with the occupational health and safety act,” said one base member, who asked to remain anonymous, as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

“It is not only our lives in danger but also those of the communities we are supposed to put first. We make them even sicker by transporting them in dirty ambulances every day.”

He said the ambulances they used had no ventilation.

“We put people at risk when we transport them in the same ambulances that have been used to transport MDR-TB [multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis] patients.”

Other workers told the Dispatch of a critical shortage of medical equipment.

“There are no maternity packs – not in the ambulances and not in the medical storerooms,” said one worker.

The packs contain sanitary pads, sterilisation liquid, gloves, wipes and material to wrap newborn babies in.

The Dispatch team also found crumbling infrastructure at the bases, such as broken windows, damaged furniture and a general lack of facilities.

“Management does not care – they don’t care about the patients and they don’t care about us,” said another worker.

Paramedics at the Mdantsane ambulance base said the station was not fit for human use.

The medical storeroom doubles up as a mechanical storeroom, where tyres and broken ambulance bumpers alike are kept.

In the same room, needles and expired drips – some dating back to 2015 – were found by the Dispatch team.

In a separate room, undisposed-of used needles were found and maggots were seen crawling over a plastic bag.

Dirty linen was dumped in the room, among other medical equipment.

The workers complained of staff and vehicle shortages as well.

Paramedics at the Fort Beaufort base work from a single room at Fort Beaufort Hospital. They use the room as a kitchen, break room and administration office.

The room cannot be locked and there are no security staff.

There is one toilet used by both men and women.

“We have to sit in this place. It is dirty and should not be a place where people have to work but we don’t have a choice,” said one worker.

Workers from the Adelaide base said the department was failing EMS workers by not providing them with uniforms.

At the Cathcart base a worker told the Dispatch: “We only have one bakkie with the jaws of life and only one person who knows the skill. If that person is off there’s no one to do the job.”

He said the base was not secured either.

“There is no guard room or any security but we have women who work night shifts and are at risk.

“The old furniture is also falling apart.”

Workers all told the same story – that their pleas for assistance had fallen on deaf ears for years and had impacted on staff morale.

“It is just madness,” said an employee. — mamelag@