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Home Healthcare Healthcare Services Doctors in South Africa
Last update on 20/06/2022
Gayatri Bhaumik Written by Gayatri Bhaumik

Need a doctor in South Africa? This article covers the registration process, costs, health insurance, medical specialists, and what to do in an emergency.

When moving to South Africa, there are many things to arrange, like applying for a visa, finding a job and a place to live, and connecting the utilities in your home. You would also need to set up new bank accounts, put your children in school, and become familiar with driving in the country. Equally important would be to navigate the local healthcare system, sign up for health insurance, and register with a dentist and a doctor.

We understand how overwhelming this process can be. Therefore, this article explains everything you need to know about finding a doctor in South Africa by looking at the following topics:

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COVID-19 in South Africa

COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone. Many expats find themselves separated from family and loved ones in their home countries. As a foreigner, it is also sometimes difficult to find critical information regarding coronavirus infection rates, local measures, and restrictions, and now, thankfully, vaccinations.

For general coronavirus health information in South Africa, including vaccination schedules and the latest government restrictions, visit our guide to COVID-19 in South Africa.


Doctors in South Africa

The Department of Health oversees the healthcare system in South Africa. It is not universal but splits into two parallel systems – public and private – that operate in tandem. The government subsidizes the public sector, while health insurance contributions fully fund the private system. According to data from the World Bank’s Human Capital Project (2017), 4% of the country’s GDP goes towards health expenditure, which is above the regional average of 2.4%.

Some 71% of residents use state-funded public healthcare, and only a small percentage – including most internationals – can afford health insurance to access private care. Additionally, around 79% of doctors in South Africa work in the private sector, leaving only 21% of physicians to care for the much larger proportion of the population. Overall, as of 2019, there were only 0.79 doctors per 1,000 people, one of the smaller per capita ratios. This reality highlights the disparity in access to good healthcare. It also exacerbates the existing social inequality in South Africa, as the public health system is often under-resourced and understaffed, leading to inefficiencies and long waiting times for patients.

Kloof Mediclinic, a private hospital and health clinic in Pretoria, South Africa

As a result, the government proposed a National Health Insurance (NHI) fund, but this is still a long way off from implementation. The Minister of Health further proposed to raise the health budget as the Department expects an increase of 0.8% in healthcare expenditure in 2021/2022.

According to the 2022 Global Healthcare Index, South Africa’s healthcare system ranked 48th out of the 89 countries, primarily due to limited healthcare accessibility in rural areas and the public system’s struggle to retain doctors. Still, the system is improving, as illustrated by its score on the Human Development Index (HDI). In 2019, South Africa ranked 114th out of 189 countries, scoring 0.709, placing it in the high human development category. This HDI value measures three dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

Services

The doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals ensure the healthcare system keeps running, offering services through clinics, small practices, hospitals, and even home visits. Doctors in South Africa often work 30-hour shifts – compared to the standard 16 hours in the US and Europe – which can affect the standard of care. However, there has recently been pushback against this, with many campaigning to improve medical care and doctors’ working hours.

The services provided by doctors in South Africa can vary greatly. For example, general practitioners (GPs) are often the first call for medical treatments, primary diagnoses, basic examinations, and vaccinations. Recently, many have been instrumental in the country’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, referring patients for tests and looking after the critically ill ones. Of course, the public and private healthcare systems also offer a wide range of medical specialists. However, it will take longer to get an appointment in the public than in the private sector.

Who can access doctors in South Africa?

Everyone in South Africa can access the local public healthcare system, including residents and visitors. However, the system prioritizes healthcare to the most vulnerable and residents from lower-income communities.

In contrast, access to private medical care is limited to those who can afford private health insurance or pay for treatment, including most internationals in South Africa.

Finding a doctor in South Africa

For public sector doctors in South Africa, you often go to your nearest clinic, practice, or state hospital. 

However, you can usually access a network of private doctors, clinics, or hospitals, if you have private insurance. You should also check that your doctor is a member of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) or the South African Medical Association. You can also search for physicians (and book appointments) through online portals, such as RecoMed, or use MediFin’s doctor directory.

Finding English-speaking doctors

You should not have any problem finding English-speaking doctors in South Africa. This is because English is one of the country’s 11 official languages, and most would have completed their medical education and training in English.

Registering with a doctor

Registering with a doctor in South Africa is relatively easy. As a resident, you can register at your local clinic. You will have to fill out a form and provide details such as your address, ID, and proof of residency. The registration process will be similar whether you use a public or private doctor. 

You can often register the whole family simultaneously, but you usually only have to provide birth dates for children

Making an appointment with doctors

Making an appointment with a doctor in South Africa is straightforward. After registering with a clinic or GP, you can book an appointment by phone, email, or online. Be aware, though, that there can be long waiting lists in the public system to see a doctor.

South Africa does offer online and telephonic doctor services by appointment. Companies like Udok, Hello Doctor, and Mediclinic all have services that allow patients to access healthcare appointments from the comfort of their homes.

Public health system, long waiting times for patients - in a waiting hall

For GPs, you may have to wait a few weeks, but it could be months before a specialist, such as a gynecologist or orthopedic surgeon, can see you. In contrast, you’ll be able to access a specialist much quicker in the private sector.

What to expect when visiting a doctor in South Africa

On arrival at the doctor’s surgery, you will have to check in at reception to confirm your appointment time. You will also have to present your health or insurance card. After this, the reception staff will direct you to the waiting area. The waiting time may run beyond your scheduled appointment time. 

Doctor consultations in South Africa usually are pretty long because the doctor will take the time to ask detailed questions about your health background and the presenting concerns. 

Patient visiting with her doctor in South Africa

At the end of your appointment, you will receive a prescription for medicine (if necessary), which you can fill at a pharmacy. You will also get a contact number if you have further issues or follow-up questions. Typically, the practice sends the bill to your health insurance directly. However, you still have to pay a certain amount that insurance will not cover. This portion of the bill is called the co-pay; patients have to settle that directly and cannot claim it back.

Medical specialists in South Africa

South Africa’s private and public healthcare systems offer a wide range of medical specialist services, from cardiologists and dermatologists to hematologists and urologists. However, you will need a referral from your GP to access their services. 

Finding a specialist in South Africa

You can access public and private sector specialists on referral from your GP. However, if they give you a general referral, meaning they don’t refer you to a specific doctor by name, only a specialist, you can also ask around or look at comparison sites such as RecoMed or MedFin.

Visiting a specialist in South Africa

Although your GP clinic can make an initial appointment with the specialist, you will likely have to do so yourself. Typically, you would call the specialist’s office directly to book the appointment and provide details about your situation and the referral.

Oncologist examining brain scans

In the public sector, you could face wait times of up to several months to see a medical specialist. In the private sector, it could be within a few days or a couple of weeks, at most. 

Cost of doctors and specialists

The South African government subsidizes approximately 50% of healthcare costs for the public sector. Because of this, a consultation with a public sector doctor in South Africa costs around R55. Of course, hospital stays and specialist treatments can be far more expensive. For example, a night in a public hospital could cost up to R980 per night. 

You will need to pay a portion of your medical costs, but the exact amount will depend on your income and how many children you have. Still, you can expect to receive a bill at the end of your doctor’s consultation or hospital stay, which you will need to pay before leaving. Some hospitals and clinics, especially private ones, will offer payment plans.

Health insurance in South Africa

As previously mentioned, South Africa has a two-tier healthcare system where the public and private sectors operate in tandem. However, the government has proposed a new National Health Insurance (NHI) fund. This would combine both tiers and create a bigger budget to offer higher levels of care for all South Africans. Unfortunately, the plan faces opposition and could be years away. 

Currently, South Africa’s public healthcare system covers everyone. This means that the govenrment covers up to 50% of all medical costs, including GP visits and specialist treatments, while the patient covers the balance.  

However, most international residents opt to buy private health insurance, which allows them to access better care, shorter waiting times, and more extensive coverage. In addition, foreign university students must have private health insurance before applying for a visa

If you prefer to access private healthcare, consider reputable companies, such as:

Private doctors and specialists in South Africa

Because the quality of South Africa’s private healthcare system is so high, most internationals go private when seeking medical care. However, to access doctors and treatment through the private system, you must have private health insurance or pay the total costs yourself. 

The private sector offers a complete network of doctors, from general practitioners to highly-trained specialists. Although you need a referral from a GP to see a specialist, you can find one through your insurance network. And, the waiting time for an appointment should be reasonable, usually a couple of days or weeks, at most.

Exterior of Netcare Greenacres Hospital and Clinic, Gqeberha (Eastern Cape)
Netcare Greenacres Hospital in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape (private medical facility)

Even with insurance, though, private medical care in South Africa can be expensive, and prices are comparable to those in OECD countries like Spain, France, Germany, and the UK.

Below are some examples of prices for medical treatments in South Africa’s private system: 

  • GP visit: R350–R1,037
  • Hospital stay: R2,000/day
  • Pathology: R4,000–R4,700
  • Surgery: R1,369–R4,131
  • Anesthesia: R2,063–R3,667
  • Radiology: R1,475–R2,109
  • Dentist visit: R1,494–R2,661
  • Specialists: R1,243–R1,621

Doctor prescriptions

Generally, doctors prescribe appropriate medications and antibiotics, as needed, after reaching a diagnosis. In South Africa, medicines are made available in different ways depending on their classification in the government’s drug schedules. For example, Schedule 0 medicines are available without restrictions, and patients can buy them off the shelves in supermarkets. But, medicines in Schedules 1 and 2 — including ibuprofen and paracetamol — can be purchased over the counter from a pharmacist. 

Patients filling their doctor's prescriptions at pharmacy

Other drugs, such as those on Schedule 5, require a prescription from a doctor to be filled by a pharmacist. You can visit an independent pharmacy or one of the big chains: Dis-ChemClicks, or MediRite. Generally, the government controls the prices of medicines, which are affordable. You sometimes also have to pay a dispensing fee.

Medical tests

Doctors in South Africa will often recommend the same standard medical tests as in other countries as part of a preventative health strategy. Depending on the test, these may either be in the doctor’s office, at a laboratory, or at a specialized testing facility.

Finger prick blood test

As such, depending on your age and current health, your doctors may regularly administer the following tests and check-ups:

  • Blood tests to check glucose and cholesterol
  • Mole checks
  • Pap smears/cervical screenings
  • Mammograms
  • Prostate screenings
  • Colon screening
  • Thyroid test
  • Blood tests for STIs, including HIV

Usually, the doctor’s office will inform you by phone or email about the results. You may also be asked to come in and consult the doctor again, if necessary.

Emergency doctors in South Africa

Noramlly, your regular clinic will have an out-of-hours hotline that you can call for a telephonic emergency consultation. However, you can also access emergency services at hospitals throughout South Africa.

If you want to go to a private emergency room, you will need to pay for treatment and then claim through your health insurance. 

Making a complaint about doctors or specialists in South Africa

The Office of the Health Ombud (OHO) is responsible for the quality of healthcare in South Africa. So, if you need to complain about a doctor, specialist, or hospital, you will need to get in touch with the office.

You can lodge your complaint online. But, you can also call the toll-free number (080 911 6472) or send an email. Claims are usually assessed within six months. 

Useful resources

Links to additional official websites and web pages that provide helpful information, such as: