South Africa’s Miracle Railway Clinic Relaunches

By Novell Zwange – MPUMALANGA – The Transnet Foundation in South Africa and Roche this month unveiled the better version of a refurbished health clinic aboard the Phelophepa health-care train, a primary health facility on rails.

Phelophepa, (which literally translates to good, clean health) is a remarkable success story of how public-private sector partnerships can be used to transform lives of communities through social entrepreneurship.

The Transnet owned train provides primary health care services to South Africa’s most remote rural areas, and these include eye and dental care, psychiatric support, cancer, diabetes and hypertension screening, as well as health education programmes.

Speaking at the official relaunch of Phelophepa, the Project Manageress, Dr Lynette Coetzee said it was Transnet Foundation’s desire “to develop this train into one of the best health care providers in the world.”

Earlier this year, the Roche sponsored health clinic was upgraded to better meet the health needs of the rural communities. The refurbished train now boast a wider passage for wheel-chair bound patients, a fully-equipped consulting room for the medical doctors and five expanded examination cubicles providing general health-care as well as cancer, diabetes and hypertension screening.

“When we started in 19194 Roche was there for us and were willing to take our hands and develop this project which is a first of its kind in the world,” said Dr Coetzee who has been involved with the Phelophepa for sixteen years since its inception.

“Roche’s funding of the Roche Health Clinic ensures its continuing operation, paying the salaries of its staff, maintain the equipment and providing educational and training material,” she stated.

Since 19194 over 600000 people have been treated in the train’s various clinics, and a further 1.3 million people have been attended through school screening, health education and counselling. While more than 45 000 patients in communities in and around South Africa register for treatment each year.

Dr Coetzee remarked that this public-private partnership “is not about money, but Roche’s door was always open.”

Roche was one of the first companies to fund Phelophepa after it was founded by Transnet in 1993 as a modest three-coach eye clinic built from redundant rolling stock.

The coach housing the train’s health clinic was renamed the “Roche Health Clinic” in 2001 and in 2003 Roche substantially increased its support for Phelophepa, funding cancer screening and diabetes services. the train now boasts of 18 coaches carrying resident nurses and doctors, dental and psychology professional, medical students, pharmacists, guards, translators, eye-specialists, cleaners and a vast general staff complement including about 75-85 local contractors.

The Canadian Friends of Phelophepa provided donation to the refurbish eye clinic coach in 2003.

In 2003 Phelophepa healthcare train won the Sowetan /Old Mutual/SABC community Builder of the Year, in 2004 it got the Mail & Guardian Award for The Most Innovating HIV/Aids Programme, in 2007 it scooped the Impumelelo Innovations Award Trust’s Platinum award For Service Excellence, then in June 2008 the  the United Nations Public Service Award for improving the delivery service towards the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of public service.

Medical screening and testing is done free of charge, and all medication in the train costs as little as R5, children and old people get all services free.

During the recent public service mass action which crippled the healthcare services in the country, Phelophepa intervened with emergency healthcare services, a plausible effort which was hailed by several leaders from across South Africa.

Mr Steven Hoerter, CEO of Roche Products Pty Ltd, South Africa said, “The tremendous impact that the train has on the community is really remarkable.”

“With our global success we have realised that it is imperative to give back to the society,” he said.

Every year the train travels for 9 months traversing rural areas of South Africa and passing through several towns including; Stitterheim, Middledrift, Colesberg, Saldanha, De Aar, Nabboomspruit, Tzaneen and many others. Most of these places are characterised by poverty,unemployment, and insufficient health care services.

The 600 ton train is equipped with own power generator as, under normal operating circumstances, the motion of passenger coaches generates enough electricity for lights and hot water and its two diesel engines and two diesel tanks ensure a reliable power source.