Healthcare in South Africa

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ER24 Discovery Health emergency helicopter in South Africa

Healthcare in South Africa is very much divided along socio-economic lines. A massive gap in quality exists between the private and public sector and, in practice, these systems cater to different populations. The public healthcare system mainly serves a lower-income bracket while those who can afford it use the private healthcare system.

It's strongly recommended that expats take out health insurance and opt for treatment in private facilities which, in general, provide world-class levels of care.


Public healthcare in South Africa

Eighty percent of the South African population uses the public healthcare system, which is heavily affected by a lack of resources and funding. The system is not yet universal although fees are charged according to a patient's income and number of dependants. In many cases, a consultation will cost less than 100 ZAR. However, waiting lists to see specialists are very long.

Public hospitals, though usually manned by highly qualified professionals, are often badly maintained. Expats will find minimal creature comforts, and will likely come across long queues, dingy exam rooms and overworked staff members. 

Private healthcare in South Africa

In direct contrast to the public health sector, South Africa's private health sector is excellent. Over 200 private hospitals and the

majority of the country's trained health professionals work in the private sector and the small percentage of the population that can afford it. Most cities and towns have clinics, hospitals and general practitioners, although in rural areas it might be necessary to travel to the nearest large centre to see a doctor. 

The standard of treatment, facilities and professionals in South African private hospitals are by far the most highly regarded on the continent and, in the opinion of many expats, on par with that of Europe. The medical tourism industry has shown steady growth and many foreigners travel to South Africa for plastic surgery and dental work.

That said, private healthcare in South Africa comes at a price, especially for those earning a local salary. Although it's possible to pay per treatment and sporadic GP visits are equivalent to an insurance co-pay in many countries (about 400 ZAR), medical costs can quickly add up.

Expats should take out private health insurance to protect against the hefty bills that accompany emergency situations and repeat consultations.


Health insurance in South Africa

Paramedic doctor in South Africa

An assortment of local medical aid providers and international health insurance companies are available to expats.
Local providers offer a variety of schemes, and charge monthly premiums on a progressive scale according to income and the package chosen by the customer. Nearly all local health insurance providers in South Africa require that claims be pre-authorised; a stipulation which makes it necessary for people to keep their medical aid card in their wallet.
Most providers offer a basic "In-Hospital Plan" which includes hospital cover and ambulance transport, but may be limited to a list of private hospitals. These are essentially emergency plans which don't cover day-to-day medical expenses such as doctor consultations and treatment, dental treatments, prescription medications and specialist consultations.
Expats interested in obtaining coverage for day-to-day expenses should compare the different packages offered by insurance providers such as Discovery, Momentum, Bonitas, Medshield and Fedhealth. Discovery, for instance, has an incentive scheme for individuals to live healthily including discounts on gym contracts, movie nights and healthy groceries.
Alternatively, expats may opt to use international insurance providers such as Bupa. Emergency evacuation insurance is unnecessary, as private South African facilities are adequate.


Pharmacies and medicines in South Africa

Pharmacies are widely available in urban centres and most Western medicines are readily available, especially in pharmacies in malls and private hospitals. Those travelling to outlying rural areas for extended periods should pack basic medications. Expats living in rural areas will need to travel to larger towns to fill prescriptions.

Health hazards in South Africa

Contrary to popular belief, malaria is not a wide scale problem in South Africa. There is, however, a narrow high-risk area that stretches across the extreme northeast of the country along its borders with Mozambique and Swaziland where taking anti-malarial medication would be wise in peak season. It should be noted that this does include parts of the Kruger National Park. 

The tap water in South Africa's cities and towns is generally safe to drink and often of good quality but caution should be exercised in rural areas.

Prevalence rates remain high for HIV/Aids. However, expats who take appropriate precautions against the disease, such as always using protection, need not be concerned.


Emergency services in South Africa

Public ambulance services in South Africa are run on a province-by-province basis and, as a result, the standard and response time can vary. The close co-operation of fire and ambulance services is the norm, although they are technically separate entities. Emergency paramedics are employed by the government and often work with volunteers, especially in outlying areas.

The South African Red Cross and St John's Ambulance are run by volunteers and supplement the national system. There are also two private, profit-making national ambulance services, ER24 and NetCare 911, which are not affiliated with the public service and are contacted via their own emergency numbers. Health insurance providers will have a preferred ambulance service and provide their customers with the corresponding contact numbers.


Ambulance contact details

  • SA Ambulance services: 10177

  • NetCare 911: 082 911

  • ER24: 084 124

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