Mortuary staff ‘poorly trained’
KZN Health Dept allegedly in violation of Act
“Some [mortuary] technicians started to flex their muscle and made things so difficult for us. They would sabotage [medical] instruments and swop body tags. It became an extremely frustrating environment.”
FOR about a decade the KwaZuluNatal Department of Health seems to have knowingly been in violation of the Health Professions Act by employing unqualified mortuary technicians.
This is said to be seriously compromising the quality of autopsies.
The Witness has also established that the department apparently quashed efforts to have mortuary technicians suitably trained and registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).
The mortuary technicians, who assist forensic pathology officers, are also alleged to be disobedient and unruly, engaging in unlawful strikes at mortuaries and driving away senior staff.
After forensic services were transferred to the Department of Health from the SAPS nationally in 2006, senior staff at the KZN Health Department sought to establish a programme to formalise the qualifications of mortuary technicians through the Durban University of Technology.
But former senior staff at the department said alleged “interference” by the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) and others scuppered the programme, which lasted just one term.
Tensions at the department were so high at the time that senior staff members walked out.
Professor Steven Naidoo, who was operational head of forensic medicine in Durban between 2003 and 2011, said the “inability” to maintain standards at mortuaries forced him to leave.
“Some technicians started to flex their muscle and made things so difficult for us. They would sabotage [medical] instruments and swop body tags. It became an extremely frustrating environment,” he said.
He added that mortuary technicians could not possibly acquire adequate training on the job. “Their training has not been ratified through an academic process.”
The department did not answer detailed questions, but said the issue of the training of mortuary technicians was not limited to KZN. “To this end, the matter is receiving attention at national government level.”
It said post mortems in KZN were being conducted by “qualified and registered” pathologists.
Nehawu did not respond to questions sent last week.
Two wellplaced former department employees said Nehawu and the department, which is allegedly “influenced” by the union, saw that the programme collapsed because mortuary technicians feared they would not pass the course.
They said unqualified mortuary technicians do not deserve their current levelseven salary grading.
A proposed amendment to KZN mortuary services formally submitted by senior staff to the department in May 2009 detailed how mortuary technicians should be considered “trainees” and kept in the levelfive bracket until properly qualified and registered with HPCSA.
“But they wanted to be confirmed as mortuary technicians before they underwent any training,” one source said. “We planned for them to get their diploma and [on site] training and then get confirmed, and once that happens they’d be entitled to a higher salary.”
The source alleged: “But they were asking ‘why do we need to train when us keeping the job will depend on us passing’.”
Both sources said they saw poor results of all technicians enrolled in the DUT programme, which was launched in 2008. “Pressure from [Nehawu] was so powerful that the programme [collapsed]. Mortuary technicians engaged in constant strikes, which is unacceptable behaviour.”
Another source said: “The department did not support us.”
HPCSA spokesperson Priscilla Sekhonyana confirmed mortuary technicians were not registered with the body.
“The registration of mortuary technicians to the HPCSA is currently being addressed by the [relevant] board.”
Sekhonyana did not respond to followup questions about which board this was and whether the HPCSA deemed the KZN Health Department to be in contravention of the Health Professions Act.
A notice in the Government Gazette said mortuary technicians have to be registered with a “professional board for medical technology”.
Unqualified staffers are not allowed to handle human tissue without being suitably registered, sources said.
As far back as 2010, KZN MEC for Health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo wrote to the Medical Rights Advocacy Network (Meran) informing them that the department had “identified certain deficiencies” with forensic services and had set up a task team. He wrote that because there was no place for formal mortuary technician training, the department had “inhouse” training programmes for technicians.
A 2011 letter by Meran notified Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi that employing unregistered mortuary technicians was “in breach of the law”.
This letter was acknowledged by the ministry.
Spokesperson for Meran, Poonitha Naidoo, said not being registered with the HPCSA meant there was no ethical body for KZN mortuary technicians to account to.
“It is important for the justice system ... they need to probe cause of death. Evidence needs to be properly produced. The work needs to be honest, credible and a document worthy for an inquest.”
Professor Naidoo said: “One day there will be a ruling by a judge that talks of great malpractice [by mortuary technicians], then suddenly the public will say ‘I can’t believe those people have been operating on our dead relatives’.”