Healthcare’s ‘toxic’ working conditions exposed in student’s documentary

25 September 2020 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photos and video Behind the Frontline Read time 4 min.
Dr Adil Khan hopes that “Behind the Frontline” will help prevent others from experiencing the same toxicities he and his peers have endured.
Dr Adil Khan hopes that “Behind the Frontline” will help prevent others from experiencing the same toxicities he and his peers have endured.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of the South African healthcare system and highlighted the need to protect the country’s frontline workers and its limited healthcare resources. It has also brought renewed attention to the working conditions experienced by frontline healthcare workers.

These working conditions are the focus of a forthcoming documentary by a University of Cape Town (UCT) postgraduate titled Behind the Frontline. The 20-minute investigative documentary reveals the toxic working conditions many South African frontline healthcare workers endure while attempting to provide patients with quality care.

The documentary was produced by Dr Adil Khan, a medical doctor who works as an advisor in the insurance sector and is pursuing a Master of Public Health at UCT’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine.

Dr Khan began his research for the documentary in 2018 and has uncovered numerous accounts of discrimination, bullying, toxic working conditions and increased mental health challenges in the sector.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng Behind the Frontline
Medical doctor, activist and media personality Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng is one of the interviewees Dr Adil Khan spoke to for the investigative documentary.
Among those providing expert opinions and their experiences is medical doctor, activist and media personality Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng; the co-authors of “The burden of depression and anxiety among medical students in South Africa: A cross-sectional survey at the University of Cape Town”, Dr Wakithi Mabaso and Dr Stefan van der Walt; and Dr Theresa Mwesigwa, the former head of Junior Doctors Association of South Africa.

Need for transformation

Khan hopes that the documentary will draw the public’s attention to these issues and spark conversation about the need for transformation in the medical community.

“Thereafter, leaders in government and health institutions should commit to a cultural transformation in the profession that normalises the holistic care of healthcare workers,” he said.

This, said Khan, must be accompanied by policies to strengthen the existing grievance processes, to prevent bullying and discriminatory behaviours, and to hold perpetrators accountable. And this needs to be continuously monitored to ensure adherence and empowerment of the healthcare worker.

Improved healthcare

Khan believes that if staff are properly and holistically cared for, they will be more engaged in their work, more compassionate, less likely to leave their positions in the public sector and will likely make fewer medical errors, which will inevitably improve the quality of healthcare service delivery to South Africans.

This includes providing healthcare workers with appropriate and regular debriefing processes. The lack thereof is one of the challenges discussed by interviewees in the documentary.

In Khan’s experience and based on the accounts of those interviewed and his colleagues and friends, there is no official debriefing process – this despite healthcare workers encountering disease and death daily.

“Emotionally, it takes its toll, and if these feelings are not acknowledged and worked through, they can lead to burnout and mental health problems,” said Khan.
The documentary has already received significant media coverage. Equally important to Khan has been the feedback from healthcare workers, who feel their suffering has finally been acknowledged.
*Viewers can secure a free booking to the online premiere, which will take place on Wednesday, 30 September, at 18:00.

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