The impact of a decentralised orthopaedic service on tertiary referrals in Cape Town, South Africa

S Afr Med J. 2023 Apr 4;113(4):e833. doi: 10.7196/SAMJ.2023.v113i4.833.


Background: In South Africa (SA), district hospitals (DHs) have limited capacity to manage the high burden of traumatic injuries. Scaling up decentralised orthopaedic care could strengthen trauma systems and improve timely access to essential and emergency surgical care (EESC). Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, SA, has the highest trauma burden in the Cape Metro East health district.

Objectives: The primary objective of this study was to describe the impact of Khayelitsha District Hospital (KDH) on acute orthopaedic services in the health district, with a focus on the volume and type of orthopaedic services provided without tertiary referral.

Methods: This retrospective analysis described acute orthopaedic cases from Khayelitsha and their management between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2019. Orthopaedic resources and the proportion of cases referred to the tertiary hospital by all DHs in the Cape Metro East health district are described.

Results: In 2018 - 2019, KDH performed 2 040 orthopaedic operations, of which 91.3% were urgent or emergencies. KDH had the most orthopaedic resources and the lowest referral ratio (0.18) compared with other DHs (0.92 - 1.35). In Khayelitsha, 2 402 acute orthopaedic cases presented to community health clinics. Trauma (86.1%) was the most common mechanism of injury for acute orthopaedic referrals. Of clinic cases, 2 229 (92.8%) were referred to KDH and 173 (7.2%) directly to the tertiary hospital. The most common reason for direct tertiary referral was condition related (n=157; 90.8%).

Conclusion: This study outlines a successful example of a decentralised orthopaedic surgical service that increased EESC accessibility and alleviated the high burden of tertiary referrals compared with other DHs with fewer resources. Further research on the barriers to scaling up orthopaedic DH capacity in SA is needed to improve equitable access to surgical care.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Orthopedics*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Retrospective Studies
  • South Africa / epidemiology
  • Tertiary Care Centers