South Africa: Free State Patients Say They’re Bracing the Cold Without Blankets in Hospitals

In July this year temperatures in some parts of the Free State dropped as low as minus 8 degrees Celsius while in some hospitals, patients were told to bring their own blankets or brace the cold without.

However, when Economic Freedom Fighters MP, Paulnita Marais raised the issue in a question to the health minister in Parliament, he – based on a response from the Free State health department – denied this. Health minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, in his response said, “Universitas Hospital has enough blankets and in the case of a shortage, the institution consults with other institutions to borrow from them. At Pelonomi Hospital,” he said, “there is an annual procurement for additional blankets to augment the available blankets and the heating system is in good working condition. At National Hospital, blankets are available and adequate. It is only at the Free State Psychiatric Complex where there is a shortage of blankets, however, there is an advert to procure 1 000 blankets, which was published on 6 June and the closing date is 15 June 2022.”

Speaking to Spotlight, Marais said the blanket and linen challenges have been ongoing for years.

“Almost daily, I get complaints from people in the community about the treatment that they get at health facilities in the province. If it’s not the unavailability of water, it is the unavailability of blankets. We have been raising this issue with the department but they blatantly lie and ignore the problem,” Marais says. “Their laundry services are filled with old equipment that does not work. Where are the blankets? Why must patients bring their own blankets? This is unacceptable.”

Spotlight visited two hospitals – Pelonomi and National Hospital to see what the situation is. At both hospitals, patients had their own blankets (not provided by the hospital), and some were only covered with hospital sheets. All the patients Spotlight spoke to say they did not receive a blanket when they were admitted.

Asked about how they cope with the cold, many say they just want to go home because the hospital is very cold. The air conditioning system at both hospitals appears not to work.

One patient, Fikile Sehlatsana who was admitted to Pelonomi Hospital on 30 June to give birth, says she was told to bring her own blankets, sleepwear, and also her own kettle for her stay.

“The situation at Pelonomi Hospital is very bad,” she tells Spotlight. “I was a high-risk maternity patient at the hospital and during our regular clinic visits, the nurses told us that it is compulsory for us to bring our own blankets, sleepwear, and kettles when we come for admissions. They tell us if we don’t, then we will get cold during our stay at the hospital and we will not have hot water.”

Sehlatsana says this turned out to be the case because when she was at the hospital, some women in her ward did not have blankets of their own and complained of the cold.

“These are women that have just given birth. They are in pain and now also have to deal with cold temperatures. I felt sorry for them and because I had two extra newborn blankets, I had to share,” she says.

Almost daily, I get complaints from people in the community about the treatment that they get at health facilities in the province. If it’s not the unavailability of water, it is the unavailability of blankets.

Unbearable cold

A nurse who works at National Hospital tells Spotlight that the shortage of blankets has been a problem for many years. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I don’t know when last I saw blankets in the maternity ward. Even though we tell patients to ask their families to bring them blankets, some of them don’t have families in Bloemfontein and they have to get cold throughout their stay. We feel sorry for them as nurses, but it is beyond our control. As nurses, we also plead with management sometimes to help us help the patients, but it is a fruitless exercise because we are told that blankets are stuck at the laundry,” the nurse says. “The worst part is that the air conditioning also does not work. The evenings are the worst because at that time the cold is unbearable. The unavailability of blankets is a tragedy for both nurses and patients. We feel sorry for them, especially those who have just given birth and are coming straight from the theatre.”

A nurse at Pelonomi Hospital tells Spotlight patients there suffer the same fate.

“The wards are cold and patients suffer in winter. When they are admitted, we feel sorry for them. There is nothing we can do. I only saw one blanket last week,” she says. “The only thing that patients receive during their stay is a sheet, but that is not enough at all.” She says this has now become the norm. “Sometimes we forget that it is the right of a patient to receive a blanket at a state hospital.”

Department responds

When Spotlight put these observations to the spokesperson for the Free State Department of Health Mondli Mvambi, he says the department spent about R15 million on linen and blankets last year. He denies that there is a blanket and linen shortage at National Hospital because, he says, National Hospital recently bought more than 2 000 linen and more than 1 000 blankets. He says the heating system in the wards is on temperatures that are regulated by infection prevention control measures.

“So National Hospital has enough linen and blankets to satisfy the needs of all our admitted patients,” he says.

I don’t know when last I saw blankets in the maternity ward. Even though we tell patients to ask their families to bring them blankets, some of them don’t have families in Bloemfontein and they have to get cold throughout their stay. We feel sorry for them as nurses, but it is beyond our control.

About the situation at other hospitals, he says that the unavailability of blankets that leads to patients being forced to bring their own blankets can be influenced by several factors.

“This can be due to non-maintenance of linen levels at hospitals or lack of laundry capacity to wash, dry, iron, and return linen back to the hospitals,” he says.

The availability of linen is not a new issue in some Free State hospitals. Earlier media reports showed that there has been a backlog of laundry due to aged equipment in the laundries, shortage of staff, and poor implementation of linen management procedures in the laundries and health facilities.

The numbers

In her 2022/23 budget vote speech in April, Free State Health MEC Montseng Tsiu said the “linen supply to institutions remains a strategic area of concern”. The department set itself a target of 85% for linen availability but only managed a 77% availability at health facilities last year.

“The department currently processes an average of 2.8 million linen items annually,” Tsiu said. “This is despite the challenges experienced, including periodic mechanical breakdowns of laundry equipment and frequent water and electricity supply, especially around the Thabo Mofutsanyana area.”

The department also spent R10.8 million on procuring linen from cooperatives and 70% of this was procured from a Free State-based cooperative, she said. The department will this year also focus on: “Regular servicing and maintenance of laundry equipment; implement [a] laundry equipment replacement plan; conduct linen audits at all CHCs and hospitals and procure additional linen; replace old vehicles with mileage over 300 000 km to improve efficiency in transportation of linen and establish and maintain alternative water and power supply for regional laundries.”

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