United in expanding healthcare access

We chat to Ruth Lewin, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Discovery, and Louise Turner, COO of the Breast Health Foundation (BHF), about how working together is not only expanding healthcare access but strengthening the current healthcare system.

The Discovery Fund

The Discovery Fund is one of two social investment funds within Discovery; the other being the Discovery Foundation. The Discovery Fund invests in the delivery of primary healthcare services in three key focus areas: maternal and child health, human resources for health, and community health. 

“The over-arching aim of the Discovery Fund is to invest in the strengthening of the healthcare system and bring about systemic change and not just respond to every request that comes our way. We have a focused mandate,” Ruth clarifies. 

Since 2013, the Discovery Fund has funded the Hlokomela Clinic, a health facility focused on providing healthcare to farm workers in the Hoedspruit area. The Discovery Fund also funded the BHF’s virtual breast health training in the public and private sector in 2017. 

It was during a visit to the Hlokomela Clinic, and whilst on a tour of the new women’s clinic, Hlokomela Women’s Clinic, that Ruth heard about the lack of referral capacity for breast issues. 

“It was at that point that I thought we support BHF; so it makes absolute sense to bring these two together to talk and see what opportunity for collaboration there is,” Ruth explains.


It was after a receptive response from BHF, as their belief is that every woman in SA has the right to access healthcare, that a pilot project was formed in 2019 and funded by the Discovery Fund (R400 000). 

The project allowed women at Hlokomela who needed specialist breast care to be referred to Helen Joseph Breast Care Clinic (HJBCC) and then travel to JHB for their respective treatment and back home. BHF spearheaded the project by planning the logistics of travelling, accommodation, and ensuring the women got to the doctors’ appointments. 

To date, 13 women have been referred to HJBCC for breast issues and have received the necessary treatment. One patient has completed all breast cancer treatment successfully.

However, BHF reported back to the Discovery Fund that this wouldn’t be a sustainable solution to the problem as firstly it was too expensive, but mostly, it was onerous for the women travelling to JHB and then back home again. Not only was the day’s bus journey exhausting, especially after chemotherapy, but these mothers had to plan for their children to be cared for while they were gone.

Thus, the Discovery Fund then tasked and funded (R650 000) BHF to do a research study of what would be needed to establish a model for sustainable breast cancer services in Mpumalanga for rural patients that currently don’t have access to care.

Next step

The outcome of the study showed that it would be best to have a breast clinic and chemotherapy treatment centre at Tintswalo Hospital in Acornhoek, rather than at the Hlokomela Clinic, as this will allow more women from the surrounding rural areas to access services. 

The Discovery Fund made a commitment of funding R1,5 million to get this up and running which will include the training of and upskilling of operational staff. 

These plans have been proposed to the Mpumalanga Department of Health. However, the concern is that Tintswalo Hospital is a regional hospital and shouldn’t have tertiary hospital facilities, like a chemotherapy centre. Negotiations are still ongoing.

Nonetheless, the building for the breast clinic has been secured. “It’s a free-standing house at Tintswalo Hospital that is currently used as a COVID ward. As soon as it’s no longer needed, the building will be given to BHF to set up the breast clinic. We will be sharing a theatre with another organisation, called Tshemba Foundation, and part of the money Discovery is funding will be used to bring in the necessary surgical equipment for breast surgery,” Louise says. 

“We are not going to be able to address big health challenges, if we don’t collaborate and we are engaging with government, so it’s a public private partnership (PPP). We need to be informed and know where the gaps are and then respond appropriately and this is what we are doing. Our aim with this project is to have more of a preventative than a curative approach,” Ruth says.

Louise notes she has changed the three Ps to four Ps: patient public private partnership as the patient is the core. 

Even though, negotiations are still ongoing with the Mpumalanga Department of Health, Louise is hopeful that this project will commence this year.

Far-reach of education on women’s health

Another positive outcome of this partnership is that Hlokomela’s navigators who go into the community and educate other women, especially sex workers, about HIV, safe sex, etc. are now also educating about breast health. “Conversations are starting to take place and it has a far-reaching rollout, not only on breast cancer but breast health: fibroids, cysts, etc.,” Louise explains.

Ruth adds that when you have an approach like this, without stigma and judgement, people start taking charge of their own health in a much more proactive way.

Through word of mouth, Louise says many women from Tzaneen and Phalaborwa want to go to Hlokomela and make use of the services offered. “Obviously our Hlokomela women come first and we can’t help everyone, but in this case, we made arrangements for the women from Tzaneen to come to JHB and get the help needed,” Louise says.

Janeath at her home
Ouma welcoming Maria and Sharlotte to Helen Joseph
Sophie at her home
Hlokomela Women's clinic

These photographs were taken as part of a BHF documentary produced by Gabriella Blumberg.

Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the editor@buddiesforlife.co.za

MEET OUR EDITOR – Laurelle Williams

Laurelle Williams is the editor at Word for Word Media. She graduated from AFDA with a Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Live Performance. She has a love for storytelling and sharing emotions through the power of words. Her aim is to educate, encourage and most of all show there is always hope. Write to the [email protected]