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Netcare sees rising need for mental health care due to virus

The company is planning to add three mental-health facilities to the 13 it already operates.
Image: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Netcare plans to add mental-health facilities as South Africa’s biggest private-hospital owner by number of beds expects more people affected by Covid-19 to seek such help.

“In mental health, we’ve seen our volumes return quite significantly,” CEO Richard Friedland said in an interview Monday. “I think quite a lot of it is related to Covid-19 and the stress and anxiety and pressures people are feeling out there.”

The company is planning to add three mental-health facilities to the 13 it already operates. As many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems (and this does not include more serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia), according to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Netcare earlier reported a decline in paid patient days in the six months through March compared with a year earlier. That’s as fewer people visited doctors during lockdowns and elective surgeries were canceled.

Also, the number of people arriving at South African emergency rooms as much as halved during South Africa’s most strict lockdown. This remained lower during the second wave experienced in December and January as the country repeatedly used a ban on alcohol sales and a curfew to ease the burden on hospital trauma wards and to discourage large gatherings.

“There is no doubt that the ban on alcohol and the curfew played a role,” Friedland said. “As the ban on alcohol was lifted, so we saw a rise in motor vehicle accidents and domestic violence and trauma. Emergency room visits are almost back at levels seen prior to the pandemic.”

Here are more highlights from the interview:

Protective equipment costs

Netcare spent R316 million ($23 million) on Covid-19 related costs, with 80% of this on personal protective equipment.

“Unfortunately we purchased a lot of PPE last year in over-inflated prices and that still needs to work through the system,” Friedland said. “As we get to all that expensive stock, I think the costs of Covid-19 will reduce substantially. But we will always have residual costs because it has changed our way of operating and we have put measures in place to ensure we have proper screening and we’re taking absolutely every precaution possible in terms of patient and staff safety.”

Re-vaccination

“Without vaccination and achieving herd immunity we are always going to be hostage to a potential Covid pandemic,” he said. Vaccinations, which have only recently opened to people other than healthcare workers, will help the country reach sufficient herd immunity, reducing the risk “exponentially”.

“Covid-19 is proving to be very much like the flu virus at mutating and it may well be the case that every year or so we have to re-vaccinate people for a different strain. I think we’ve got to get used to the fact that there’s a new virus that my well rear its head in different variants or different forms on a yearly basis.”

Elective surgeries

There may be some pent-up demand for surgeries that were not deemed time sensitive, Friedland said. Still, some people may have decided that if a surgery wasn’t strictly necessary six months ago, it may not be necessary now.

“It’s extremely difficult to forecast,” he said. “We’ve seen volumes increase in May, but the country may be on the precipice of a third wave,” and that would disrupt operations again.

Third wave

As South Africa enters winter, that “will definitely exacerbate a third wave because people are indoors and social distancing then becomes a problem,” he said. “If there is a new strain that emerges that will be a real problem for us.”

© 2021 Bloomberg

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