The Phelophepa Health Trains brings health and hope to thousands of rural South Africans in need of access to health-care facilities. These eighteen coach trains, with theirits twenty resident staff members, fondly known as the 'miracle trains', carry the most modern medical equipment on board. Phelophepa is indeed a journey of hope that continues to make a history of caring.
In many South African rural communities, there is often only a single doctor for every 5 000 people. The Phelophepa Health Trains – the world’s first primary health-care hospitals on wheels – use the existing rail network to make quality medical care an accessible reality for many of South Africa’s most remote communities. The name ‘Phelophepa’ combines elements of Sotho and Tswana and, roughly translated, means ‘good, clean health’ – which is exactly what these travelling health clinics provide.
The first of our much-loved Phelophepa Health Trains started operating in 1994. Fondly referred to as ‘the miracle train’ by many of those it has provided aid to, it won the United Nations Public Service Award in the ‘Improving Service Delivery’ category in June 2008. This remains just one of the many ways in which its positive impact has been recognised within and outside South African borders.
On accepting the award, Lynette Coetzee, Senior Portfolio Manager (Health) at the Transnet Foundation, shared Phelophepa’s vision;: “In the poorest parts of South Africa, a child’s story is a series of ‘ifs’. If a child is better nourished, if he can get health-care, if she can have an earlier diagnosis; they may have a brighter future. Phelophepa is designed to address some of these ‘ifs’.”
Phelophepa I – Bringing Hope and Good Health to Thousands
The first of the custom-built Phelophepa Health Train, began riding the rails in 1994. It travels for 35 weeks each year, visiting a different rural community every week. This was a significant step forward in the Transnet Foundation’s vision of providing quality health-care where health services and infrastructure were not fully in place. The Phelophepa Health Train has shown incredible growth since its humble beginnings as a three-carriage eye clinic.
Today – almost two decades later – it boasts 18 fully refurbished and equipped coaches that provide facilities for health, oral and vision screening programmes, basic health education awareness and community counselling workshops.
Through on-board clinic services and community outreach programmes Phelophepa impacts over 180 000 patients a year.
Phelophepa II – Reaching Even More Communities
The success of the Phelophepa Health Train, together with the increased demand for healthcare services, set in motion plans for another train. That dream became a reality when the second train, Phelophepa II, became operational in March 2012 in the Eastern Cape.
With both trains operating simultaneously, the extended reach of the primary healthcare offering enables potentially 360 000 patients to receive health-care they would not have had access to before.
Working for Sustained Community Improvement
Although the Phelophepa Health Trains can only be in an area for a limited time, the goal is to supplement and support existing facilities to make sure the residents can continue benefitting from quality healthcare once the train has departed. By focusing on education and empowerment, the trains leave better equipped and more informed communities in their tracks, which is a core value of the Phelophepa programme.
- Before the train rolls into town, teams are sent out to alert the community of the days the train will be delivering services.
- Relationships are established with the existing health-care providers so that patients can be referred and continue to receive the care they need.
- While the train is in the area, screening and health-care education are the primary concerns. Nursing teams visit local schools to screen children for health-related problems and educate them about basic healthcare.
Our ‘not so little’ trains of hope are fully equipped with modern medical equipment, very dedicated full-time staff members, and volunteer students, providing general health-care, treatment for diseases such as eye and dental care, screening for diabetes and cancer, as well as psychological counselling services.
Our convenient on-board pharmacy dispenses the necessary medication and our community outreach programme, led by the chief nurse, frequents local schools and communities in the surrounding areas. Health-care education lies at the very heart of Phelophepa’s services. It equips people living in such remote communities with important knowledge that will help them to prevent and correctly identify disease symptoms, as well as to show them how to take their medication correctly.
This project is about sharing and caring. Community empowerment is witnessed at each station, from the preparation phase to well after the trains depart from the stations (area) they visit for a week.
“I greatly value the tremendous energy and inspired work that has driven this wonderful initiative to the success where it today features internationally as a shining example of health-care delivery, empowerment and technology in a developing country,” says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
A special team of resident staff live on the train for its annual 9-month operational period. These dedicated health-care professionals and support staff, together with the Transnet Foundation Office, manage the logistics and supervise the continuous stream of final year students from leading academic institutions all over South Africa, who participate to gain invaluable practical experience for two weeks at a time.
Annually, approximately 1 200 final year students practise on-board Phelophepa Health Trains.