Radiation therapy graduates unplaced for six months by health department

Graduates are required by law to complete the Internship and Community Service Programme in order to practise

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Cancer Alliance says there are radiation oncology staff shortages in Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital. Radiation therapy graduates GroundUp spoke to said they had applied to the hospital but had not been placed. Archive photo: Masego Mafata

  • For six months now a number of radiation therapy graduates have not been placed in hospitals by the Department of Health.
  • Graduates are required by law to complete the department’s Internship and Community Service Programme in order to practise.
  • This comes at a time when there are reports of radiation oncology staff shortages in Gauteng hospitals.
  • The Gauteng health department did not answer GroundUp’s questions.

A number of radiation therapy graduates, who must by law complete the Department of Health’s Internship and Community Service Programme in order to practise medicine, say they have been waiting for nearly six months to be placed in hospitals.

They have finished their four-year studies and now need to complete a year-long internship, referred to as Comserve, in order to register and practice as medical professionals. Their primary role is to administer radiation treatment to patients with cancer.

The community service programme is administered by the National Department of Health.

“We are left in limbo, not sure when we will receive a post,” a graduate from the Western Cape, who wished to be anonymous, told GroundUp. He said that they’ve been told since the beginning of the year by Comserve officials that they are engaging with provinces to secure them placements.

He shared correspondence that said he was not yet allocated a position “due to the unavailability of funded posts”.

He said that it was “frustrating” that they are required by law to do Comserve yet the department cannot find them posts.

“We are all stressed out … We still have bills to pay from university. We are squatting with our parents. We were promised we were going to have a job after studying and now we can’t apply for other jobs. Our hands are cut off. We can’t do anything,” he said.

He said he knew of about nine other radiation therapists also waiting for placements.

Another graduate, from KwaZulu-Natal, said the lack of placement risked creating a backlog when next year’s graduates need to do Comserve.

“At the end of the day, our cancer patients are going to suffer … They need us and we have trained specifically to help them,” she said.

The failure to place graduates is happening despite staff shortages in radiation oncology departments in Gauteng.

On 30 April activists from SECTION27, Cancer Alliance and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) as well as cancer patients marched to the offices of the Gauteng department of health demanding that millions of rands set aside for radiation treatment be used.

In an open letter addressed to health MEC Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, the organisations provided a backlog list of about 3,000 patients awaiting radiation oncology treatment.

Salomé Meyer of the Cancer Alliance says there are radiation oncology staff shortages in Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital and Steve Biko Academic Hospital.

Both graduates GroundUp spoke to had applied to Charlotte Maxeke for their Comserve year.

In December 2023, the national department stated that nearly 10,400 Comserve applications were received. Of these just shy of 9,400 applicants “were successfully placed, and this includes medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals at health facilities throughout the country”.

National Department of Health spokesperson Foster Mohale sent GroundUp an incoherent and incomplete WhatsApp response. “We only know those who were placed. We can’t tell those who were not placed because we are not sure of their career plans,” he wrote.

Asked about staff shortages, Mohale wrote that the department “prioritises all critical posts using limited budget”.

The Gauteng Department of Health did not respond to our questions about radiology therapist Comserve placements and staff shortages in its hospitals, despite committing to do so and repeated follow-ups.

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