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Though there is excellent healthcare available in South Africa, it is largely limited to the private sector and comes at a high price. It is essential, therefore, that expats invest in international health insurance in order to access a good quality of care.
Most of South Africa’s hospitals are public hospitals – however, these tend to be overcrowded, under-resourced and understaffed, with long waiting times. The standard of medical care in public hospitals can range from acceptable to very low, plagued by problems such as old or broken equipment, medication shortages and lack of staff.
The best public hospitals are usually academic hospitals associated with the country’s major universities. However, although these hospitals offer a generally better standard of care, waiting times for everything from a simple consultation to a major surgery remain extremely long.
Major urban areas of South Africa have many excellent private hospitals and practitioners to choose from. The General Practitioner (GP) is the first port of call for day-to-day ailments and may refer patients to a specialist if necessary, though it’s possible to go directly to a specialist without a referral.
There are several well-established nationwide private hospital chains offering a high standard of care. Expats can expect up-to-date equipment in comfortable facilities, with well-trained, English-speaking staff. Hospital stays are expensive, however, so it’s important to be well insured.
The South African constitution guarantees healthcare to all, and as a result public hospitals operate on a sliding scale, meaning that low-income and unemployed individuals only pay a small fee for consultations and medications. However, expats will likely be in an income bracket well above this and will therefore be liable to pay for healthcare costs out of pocket, even at public hospitals.
When deciding on a health insurance provider, it’s important to remember that good quality healthcare in South Africa is expensive and paid for upfront, so a robust health insurance plan is best. Note that some policies – generally the less expensive ones – only allow access to hospitals and doctors within a specified network.
There are two major pharmacy chains in South Africa, which are complemented by many independent pharmacies. Pharmacists are well-trained and can offer medical advice on minor ailments and injuries.
Pharmacies can be found in shopping malls or main streets. Most close at 5pm or 7pm and are closed on Sundays. There are, however, also pharmacies attached to hospitals, some of which are open to customers 24 hours a day.
The emergency number in South Africa is 10111, which can be dialled from any cell phone or landline. Operators are able to speak English. Public ambulance services are managed regionally and response times vary. There are also private ambulance services, which have their own dedicated lines. If this would be the preferred service, expats should make sure they have the appropriate contact details to hand in case of an emergency.