The waiting lists at the government hospitals in South Africa for surgical procedures are extremely long. In the field of orthopaedic surgery it is especially the arthroplasty (joint replacement) procedures that have very long waiting lists.

This is due in part to the greater expense of the procedure and the fact that these operations seldom constitute an emergency. In the Western Cape, these procedures are primarily performed at the two academic/teaching hospitals (Tygerberg Hospital and Groote Schuur Hospital).

At Tygerberg Hospital the situation is desperate. A patient requiring a hip or knee replacement is first seen by a medical officer at a primary health care clinic or secondary hospital and then referred to the arthroplasty clinic at Tygerberg Hospital. Just getting an appointment is problematic as the waiting time is approximately 6 months and when the waiting lists are too long the referring doctor is simply asked to call again the following year. Once seen at the arthroplasty clinic they are assessed and then placed on a waiting list for surgery. Most of our beneficiaries have been placed on this waiting list and two of our recent recipients were given numbers on the list in excess 3000. This means that a new patient can wait over ten years for their replacement once they are placed on the waiting list!

The situation is no different at Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH). In a recent article in The Cape Times, Prof Johan Walters (Head of Orthopaedic Surgery at GSH) stated that his personal waiting list at GSH for a hip or knee replacement comprised 1461 patients. He is quoted as saying that at his current rate of 80 surgeries per year, it will take 18.5 years to treat those already on the waiting list!

Some of these patients are so incapacitated that they are only able to walk with crutches and in are in a great deal of pain. Unfortunately the trend at both these facilities has shown an exponential increase in these waiting lists over the years. This situation is therefore bound to worsen over time, even with radical intervention form the Department of Health.