Discovery partnership turbo-charges breast cancer awareness


Working together to enhance training and advocacy in the public and private sector, the Discovery Fund and the Breast Health Foundation have made a significant impact in the detection, diagnosis and referral of breast cancer patients in South Africa.

In 2017, The Discovery Fund and the Breast Health Foundation came together in partnership because of a shared passion for reducing South Africa’s high prevalence of breast cancer.

One in 28 South African women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Many of these women die owing to late detection and a shortage of healthcare professionals with appropriate screening skills. Of the 400 000 registered nurses in South Africa, fewer than 1% work in breast care. Statistics show that when breast cancer is detected early, nine out of 10 women are still alive a decade after treatment.

Upskilling nurses to better detect breast cancer

Professor Carol Benn, Breast Health Foundation founder and lynchpin of the Milpark Breast Care Centre of Excellence in Gauteng, says the collaboration with Discovery will help educate healthcare professionals and the public. “Most doctors don’t realise the prevalence of breast cancer, particularly in young women. They don’t know how to refer them and to who, especially if the person concerned is not on medical insurance.”

The Discovery Fund partnered with the Breast Health Foundation to give more hospital nurses on-site training in breast care. The pilot tertiary hospital training began in 2017 at the Milpark Breast Care Centre of Excellence. It soon expanded from the Helen Joseph and Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospitals in Gauteng to the less-resourced Kimberley Hospital in the Northern Cape and Mount Frere Hospital in East London. The training was backed by smartphone eLearning targeted at public nurses and doctors stationed in outlying facilities that refer patients to these tertiary hospitals.

Going digital to train breast health champions

The Breast Health Foundation realised that going digital would enhance advocacy and spread detection skills far more quickly. So, in October 2018, a training website was launched at Discovery’s headquarters in Sandton.

Breast Health Foundation CEO Louise Turner says, “The concept is that those we train become breast ambassadors or champions within their organisations, training more trainers and spreading the safety net.”

The website offers breast education for public sector health promoters and nurses, and an upscaled version for GPs, pathologists and specialists, be they in radiology, oncology, plastic surgery or any other discipline involved in managing breast cancer.

The envisioned outcome? “To pick up anything suspicious during a woman’s examination at a rural clinic, health centre or district hospital, with immediate referral to the nearest tertiary hospital – with professionals from the Milpark Breast Care Centre of Excellence, such as Professor Benn, as online back-up,” Turner explains.

Website becomes compulsory training at several hospitals

A few months before the website launched, the long-awaited National Department of Health breast health policy was legislated. The policy obliges doctors and nurses to triage and refer patients with breast cancer, giving the new initiative a timely boost.

Several private hospital groups have inserted a digital link to the Breast Health Foundation website on their own internal web-based platforms, making it a compulsory part of their in-house training. Top pharmaceutical companies are sponsoring the videos, reducing the cost in return for branding. The training platform is accessible any time and from any internet-enabled device, including tablets and mobile phones. Users receive a Breast Advocate Certificate when they complete the full module.

On 26 January 2019, the National Department of Health flew in 36 of their healthcare staff (ranging from nurses and matrons to doctors from as many tertiary and regional hospitals around the country) to a central Gauteng Breast Health Foundation training venue. They learned how to complete the digital training modules while garnering valuable Continuing Professional Development points.

Addressing a dire need and improving equity

When Professor Benn started her first clinic at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital nearly two decades ago, she had two patients next to a urology clinic. “Within six months I had 150 patients a week, all because we created awareness in the surrounding areas. That’s how the Breast Health Foundation was conceived,” she says.

Professor Benn is passionate about creating more pathways and safer access to good quality healthcare. She believes more public-private collaboration is vital to make sure quality care is never compromised, regardless of access to funding.

Breast Health Foundation meets Hlokomela

In 2017, Discovery introduced the Breast Health Foundation to Hlokomela, an award-winning HIV and Aids educational and treatment programme in Hoedspruit, Limpopo.

Through her work with people living with HIV and Aids, Hlokomela founder Christine du Preez became aware of the dire circumstances of women with breast cancer and their lack of access to chemotherapy. Discovery donated funds to the Breast Health Foundation to treat Hlokomela-referred patients and raise breast cancer awareness in the region. The Hlokomela Women’s Clinic was established in 2017.

By early 2019, awareness and screening helped detect breast cancer in 12 farm workers, seven of whom were commuting 400 km to Helen Joseph Hospital’s Breast Care Centre where Professor Benn consults. Discovery funded travel to Johannesburg and accommodation for patients and their closest relatives.

Professor Benn concludes that paying forward is a useful concept that empowers people from all walks of life to make a difference in the lives of others. “You can take nothing with you off this planet. Working in the oncology field makes this very real, so contributing to a better planet is important to us. We need to stop blaming government for failing healthcare systems, whether inherited from past structures or any other reason.”

Watch the video for more about Professor Benn:

The Breast Health Foundation is a non-profit organisation established by Professor Carol Benn in April 2002. Its purpose is to increase and promote education, awareness and treatment to the public about breast cancer and breast health. The aim is to empower people to have a positive mindset of survival, recovery and quality of life.

About the Discovery Foundation

Discovery’s core purpose is to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. In line with this purpose, the vision of the Discovery Fund is to improve individuals’ quality of life through providing primary healthcare services in indigent communities that do not have access to mainstream healthcare.

Learn more about the Discovery Fund.

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