Groote Schuur Hospital – Hospital of the People

Perched high up on the hill in the shadow of Devil’s Peak at the foot of the Table Mountain, stands Groote Schuur Hospital, which provides public health care to the population of the Western Cape and beyond.

Opened on 31 January 1938, the hospital boasts a proud 83-year history of service excellence. Locally, Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH) is renowned as the training ground for some of South Africa’s best doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals.

Internationally, Groote Schuur gained global fame when, in December 1967, a young University of Cape Town educated surgeon named Christiaan Barnard completed the world’s first successful human heart transplant.

Today, the hospital is an internationally celebrated research institution and is highly regarded for its clinical and teaching activities.

Proud history

“Groote Schuur Hospital has a rich 83-year history of providing excellence in specialist and sub-specialist patient care, not only for those in the immediate community but for the rest of the country and the rest of Africa,” says CEO Dr Bhavna Patel.

“This accomplishment is only possible through the dedication and hard work of our staff who consistently strive to improve the services, by remaining at the cutting edge of innovation and improvement. Our motto of ‘Servamus’ has been upheld over the years with a sense of pride and a commitment to serving the patient,” she affirms.

As a government-funded teaching hospital, Groote Schuur is staffed by highly experienced individuals who can typically be seen mentoring medical school students from the University of Cape Town who are completing their training. The standard of care is therefore very high.

Dr Patel says: “Being an academic teaching hospital, we have managed to balance clinical activities with both academia and research of international standards and, dare I say, of higher quality. The hospital serves as a teaching platform for both undergraduate and postgraduate students and is an essential resource for clinical research. Our symbiotic relationship with the University of Cape Town Faculty of Health Sciences remains strong, allowing us to support one another in achieving our goals.”

Throughout the earlier years of its existence, Groote Schuur was always known as the hospital of the people and while segregation had to be enforced by law for both patients and staff, this was not seen in the quality of care delivered – hence becoming the hospital of choice for anyone living in and around Cape Town. Equity and access have always been hurdles for the less privileged communities, but Groote Schuur has always provided the best care possible.

Dr Patel points out that the hospital leadership has contributed significantly to its success by providing stable, strong and decisive management through all the years. “This is an important part of its history that should never be forgotten since the clinicians and other activities would not be able to function without the support of the leadership of the hospital.”

All about people

Dr Patel affirmed that the recent pandemic further highlighted the importance of staff, the hospital’s core asset, and the fact that staff wellness and safety must always remain a priority.

“The most important support to staff comes from the visibility of leadership, which has been encouraged through our home-grown Leadership Development Programme. Staff have repeatedly commented on the sense of value they feel in being recognised, acknowledged and respected for what they do and they feel supported by management just being there,” she says, adding that the ultimate investment lies in management’s ability to communicate clearly with the staff, which has been particularly important during the pandemic.

Dr Patel further reflects that since the start of 2020, many of the hospital services have had to change gear and accommodate the Covid services. Outpatient, elective admissions and theatre activities were curtailed in order to make space available for the management of Covid patients. The planning and execution of the Covid service were seen to be a model that was presented to other hospitals throughout the country.

“The hospital took the lead in the province in scaling up services and developing clinical guidelines for care. A major achievement was that the hospital developed a model of staffing that we called a ‘Whole of hospital approach’. This meant that staff from all disciplines participated in multidisciplinary teams taking care of the Covid patients. Many policies and guidelines were developed at GSH and later shared with other hospitals throughout the country.”

Service excellence

Speaking about the way forward, Dr Patel says that the pandemic has highlighted the need to re-design the hospital’s future by reviewing its role in the bigger picture and reframing perspectives.

“In the short to medium term, we need to concentrate on the ongoing management of Covid and on balancing this with the clinical pressures, together with assisting in the vaccine rollout. Previously recognised hospital priorities have been reviewed and remain ongoing, such as setting up a Diabetic Centre of Excellence. This will now change based on Covid lessons learnt, since up to 53% of covid deaths occurred in patients with diabetes and hypertension.”

“Other important tasks include setting up an Adolescent Center, promoting a Day Surgery unit and strengthening the hospital’s super-specialist services such as organ transplants. The hospital had recently set up a Neuroscience Center and wished to acquire a Surgical Robot. These initiatives will continue pending the availability of funds.”

Despite all the challenges, Groote Schuur Hospital has continued to improve, innovate and grow, and sustain its excellence. “We are the only hospital in the country providing many of the sub-specialist services in the public sector. While the hospital became world-famous because of the world’s first heart transplant by Professor Christiaan Barnard, there have been many more such world firsts, country firsts and hospital firsts that we recognise and celebrate as part of our service excellence,” says Dr Patel.

“This is a testament to its dedicated and committed staff, which makes leading such a hospital extremely pleasurable. Our achievements must be celebrated and each and every staff member has in some way contributed to this. Our success is due to them,” she concludes.

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