Cold comfort: Free State hospital patients say they’re bracing the cold without blankets | News24


  • Patients at several hospitals in the Free State have to take their own blankets, sleepwear and kettles to the facilities when they are admitted.
  • Nurses said the shortage of blankets at hospitals had been a problem for many years.
  • Spotlight visited two hospitals – Pelonomi and National Hospital in Bloemfontein – to establish what the situation was.

In July, temperatures in some parts of the Free State dropped as low as minus -8°C, but at some hospitals, patients were told to bring their own blankets or brace the cold without any.

However, when EFF MP Paulnita Marais raised the issue in a question to the health minister in Parliament, he – based on a response from the Free State health department – denied this, Spotlight reports.

“Universitas Hospital (in Bloemfontein) has enough blankets, and in the case of a shortage, the institution consults with other institutions to borrow from them,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla said in his response.

“At Pelonomi Hospital (in Bloemfontein), there is an annual procurement for additional blankets to augment the available blankets, and the heating system is in good working condition. At National Hospital (in Bloemfontein), blankets are available and adequate. It is only at the Free State Psychiatric Complex (in Bloemfontein) where there is a shortage of blankets. However, there is an advert to procure 1 000 blankets, which was published on 6 June, and the closing date is 15 June 2022,” he said.

Speaking to Spotlight, Marais said the blanket and linen challenges have been ongoing for years:

Almost daily, I get complaints from people in the community about the treatment that they get at health facilities in the province.

“If it’s not the unavailability of water, it is the unavailability of blankets. We have been raising this issue with the department, but they blatantly lie and ignore the problem,” Marais said.

“Their laundry services are filled with old equipment that does not work. Where are the blankets? Why must patients bring their own blankets? This is unacceptable.”

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Spotlight visited two hospitals – Pelonomi and National Hospital – to establish what the situation was. At both hospitals, patients had their own blankets (not provided by the hospital), and some were only covered with hospital sheets. All the patients Spotlight spoke to said they did not receive blankets after being admitted.

Asked about how they coped with the cold, many said they just wanted to go home because the hospital was very cold. The air conditioning systems at both hospitals appeared not to be working.

One patient, Fikile Sehlatsana, who was admitted to Pelonomi Hospital on 30 June to give birth, said she was told to bring her own blankets, sleepwear and kettle for her stay.

She told Spotlight:

The situation at Pelonomi Hospital is very bad.

“I was a high-risk maternity patient at the hospital, and during our regular clinic visits, the nurses told us that it is compulsory for us to bring our own blankets, sleepwear, and kettles when we come for admissions. They tell us if we don’t, then we will get cold during our stay at the hospital, and we will not have hot water,” she added.

Sehlatsana said this turned out to be the case because when she was at the hospital, some women in her ward did not have blankets of their own and complained of the cold.

“These are women that have just given birth. They are in pain and now also have to deal with cold temperatures. I felt sorry for them, and because I had two extra newborn blankets, I had to share,” she said.

‘The cold is unbearable’

A nurse working at National Hospital told Spotlight the shortage of blankets had been a problem for many years. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

“I don’t know when last I saw blankets in the maternity ward. Even though we tell patients to ask their families to bring them blankets, some of them don’t have families in Bloemfontein, and they… get cold throughout their stay. We feel sorry for them as nurses, but it is beyond our control. As nurses, we also plead with management sometimes to help us help the patients, but it is a fruitless exercise because we are told that blankets are stuck at the laundry,” the nurse said.

The nurse added:

The worst part is that the air conditioning also does not work. The evenings are the worst because at that time the cold is unbearable. The unavailability of blankets is a tragedy for both nurses and patients. We feel sorry for them, especially those who have just given birth and are coming straight from the theatre.

A nurse at Pelonomi Hospital told Spotlight patients there suffered the same fate.

“The wards are cold, and patients suffer in winter. When they are admitted, we feel sorry for them. There is nothing we can do. I only saw one blanket last week,” she said. “The only thing that patients receive during their stay is a sheet, but that is not enough at all.”

She said this had become the norm:

Sometimes, we forget that it is the right of a patient to receive a blanket at a state hospital.

Department responds

When Spotlight put these observations to Free State Department of Health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi, he said the department spent about R15 million on linen and blankets last year.

He denied that there was a blanket and linen shortage at National Hospital because the hospital recently bought more than 2 000 linen and more than 1 000 blankets. He said the temperatures of the heating systems in wards were regulated according to infection prevention control measures.

He said:

So, National Hospital has enough linen and blankets to satisfy the needs of all our admitted patients.

About the situation at other hospitals, he said the unavailability of blankets that led to patients being forced to bring their own blankets could be influenced by several factors.

“This can be due to non-maintenance of linen levels at hospitals or lack of laundry capacity to wash, dry, iron, and return linen back to the hospitals,” he said.

The unavailability of linen is not a new issue at some Free State hospitals. Earlier media reports showed that there has been a backlog of laundry due to aged equipment in laundry departments, shortage of staff, and poor implementation of linen management procedures at the launderettes and health facilities.

The numbers

In her 2022-’23 budget vote speech in April, Free State Health MEC Montseng Tsiu said the “linen supply to institutions remains a strategic area of concern”. 

The department set itself a target of 85% for linen availability but only managed a 77% availability at health facilities last year.

Tsiu said:

The department currently processes an average of 2.8 million linen items annually.

“This is despite the challenges experienced, including periodic mechanical breakdowns of laundry equipment and frequent water and electricity supply [issues], especially around the Thabo Mofutsanyana area.”

The department also spent R10.8 million on procuring linen from cooperatives, and 70% of this was procured from a Free State-based cooperative, she added.

She said the department would this year focus on “regular servicing and maintenance of laundry equipment; implement [a] laundry equipment replacement plan; conduct linen audits at all CHCs (community health centres) and hospitals and procure additional linen; replace old vehicles with mileage over 300 000 km to improve efficiency in transportation of linen; and establish and maintain alternative water and power supply for regional laundries”.

This article was published by Spotlight, health journalism in the public interest.

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