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Primary health services at district level in South Africa: a critique of the primary health care approach

Sunitha Dookie and Shenuka Singh*

Author Affiliations

School of Health Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X54001, Durban, 4000, South Africa

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BMC Family Practice 2012, 13:67  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-13-67

Published: 2 July 2012



The rhetoric of primary health care philosophy in the district health system is widely cited as a fundamental component of the health transformation process in post-apartheid South Africa. Despite South Africa’s progress and attempts at implementing primary health care, various factors still limit its success.


Inconsistencies and poor understanding of primary care and primary health care raises unrealistic expectations in service delivery and health outcomes, and blame is apportioned when expectations are not met. It is important for all health practitioners to consider the contextual influences on health and ill-health and to recognise the role of the underlying determinants of ill-health, namely, social, economic and environmental influences. The primary health care approach provides a strong framework for this delivery but it is not widely applied.

There is a need for renewed political and policy commitments toward quality primary health care delivery, re-orientation of health care workers, integration of primary health care activities into other community-based development, improved management skills and effective coordination at all levels of the health system. There should also be optimal capacity building, and skills development in problem-solving, communication, networking and community participation.


A well-functioning district health system is required for the re-engineering of primary health care. This strategy requires a strong leadership, a strengthening of the current district heath system and a greater emphasis on health promotion, prevention, and community participation and empowerment.

Primary health care; District health system