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World Health Day: South Africa’s path to health and prosperity requires more

Azra Hoosen | ah@radioislam.co.za
3 April 2024 | 15:30 CAT
2 min read

While access to healthcare is indeed a fundamental human right, building a healthy nation essential for South Africa’s productivity and economic growth requires more than implementing universal free healthcare.

On World Health Day, observed on April 7th, Professor Renata Schoeman, Head of the MBA in Healthcare Leadership programme at Stellenbosch Business School, proposes that the ongoing emphasis on health as a human right and the provision of care through universal health insurance could potentially deter individuals from taking responsibility for their own health.

While the overall death rate in South Africa has shown a slight decrease, there has been a concerning rise in the number of deaths attributed to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.

“We need to be aware that non-communicable diseases are something that’s primarily determined by genetics and lifestyle. External factors cannot really assist, nor can the government prevent that. But if we look at two factors, there is an ageing population, but there is an increase in diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer, and diabetes is a big challenge we have,” she said.

Diabetes, in particular, has experienced a rapid increase in South Africa, with prevalence jumping from 4.5% in 2010 to 12.7% in 2019, according to the latest statistics. It stands out as one of the leading underlying causes of death in the country. Alarmingly, of the estimated 4.58 million South Africans aged 20-79 years living with diabetes, over 52% are believed to be underdiagnosed.

Professor Schoeman emphasizes that health is not solely about being free from illness. It is affected by genetics and social and economic factors like poverty, unemployment, housing, education, nutrition, the environment, and individual choices.

Highlighting the efficacy of disincentives like “sin taxes” and incentives such as discounts and loyalty rewards for healthy lifestyle choices, Professor Renata Schoeman emphasises that implementing similar measures in the public sector to promote health and prevent diseases would be “significantly more affordable” than the National Health Insurance (NHI).

“It is a good strategy, but in general, incentives are lacking in the public sector. It has the potential to really change personal behaviour and is cheaper than a national health insurance broker,” she said.

She noted that people often make poor nutritional choices, as junk food tends to be cheaper than nutritious options. To address this, there is a desire to incentivize healthy choices. Additionally, excessive screen time for children promotes inactivity, as it encourages prolonged periods of sitting.

Schoeman pointed out that focusing solely on government interventions can disempower people from taking responsibility for their own health. However, we all have the ability to contribute to better health outcomes. She suggests that many companies have vending machines containing unhealthy, sugary items that healthier alternatives could replace.

She emphasises that governments must expand their focus beyond simply ensuring accessibility and funding for healthcare. They should also prioritise the quality of healthcare and address fundamental issues such as poverty, unemployment, health promotion and prevention strategies, and creating safe and healthy living environments.

“We must fix the inefficiencies in the public healthcare system and waste resources before potentially destroying private healthcare,” she said.

Professor Schoeman suggests that everyone takes responsibility for their own health through regular exercise (at least 30 minutes a day), following a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in processed sugars and fats, stopping smoking and avoiding the use of drugs, limiting alcohol, prioritising sleep (at least 7 hours a night), limiting screen time, and seeking help for physical and mental health issues as soon as they arise.

LISTEN to the full interview with Ml Junaid Kharsany and Professor Renata Schoeman, here.

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