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A Travelers Guide to Healthcare In South Africa

An in-depth guide on healthcare in South Africa for travelers, from pharmacy runs to emergencies – here's everything you need to know.

South Africa, fondly nicknamed by locals as the Rainbow Nation, is the southernmost country in Africa. With over 60 million people, it is the 23rd most populated country in the world and certainly one of the most diverse – both culturally and naturally. This multi-ethnic destination is a favorite among tourists who wish to experience the thrill of the African wild, take in magnificent landscapes, and of course, share in the warm spirit of the South African people.

If you are planning a trip, then this guide to healthcare in South Africa will give you everything you need to know to stay safe and informed during your stay.


Healthcare in South Africa – The Basics

Boasting the highest healthcare standard on the continent, South Africa follows a two-tier healthcare system: comprised of a large subsidized public sector and a small private sector – the latter being of very high quality. Healthcare in South Africa is administered by the Department of Health, with approximately 80% of the South African population using public healthcare and the remaining wealthier 20% opting for private healthcare.

Public Healthcare

Most of South Africa’s hospitals are public hospitals. Public healthcare services are accessible to anyone regardless of nationality or immigration status – and includes free primary services such as emergency treatment, clinic visits, and consultations with doctors. State healthcare services are primarily designed for those who cannot afford private healthcare insurance. Yet, interestingly, private healthcare makes up half of the annual expenditure and clearly indicates a major gap between public and private healthcare facilities.

These medical facilities are generally overcrowded, under-resourced, and understaffed, with long waiting times. The standard of care can range from acceptable to low and is often plagued with old or broken equipment, medication shortages, and lack of staff.

Typically, the best public hospitals are academic institutions affiliated with the country’s major universities.  While they do offer a better standard of care, waiting times remain extremely long.

Private Healthcare

South Africa has an extensive network of private doctors, specialists, hospitals, and clinics, and around 79% of doctors in the country work privately in about 200 private hospitals across the country. Major urban areas throughout the country have excellent private hospitals to choose from, and there are several well-established nationwide private hospital chains that offer a high standard of care. Patients in private healthcare facilities can expect up-to-date equipment in comfortable facilities with well-trained staff. Hospital stays and specialist consultations can be expensive, so health insurance is essential.

Cost of Healthcare in South Africa

Funding for public healthcare in South Africa comes from government spending through taxation, as well as point-of-care spending from those using services. Public healthcare is subsidized by up to 40% of total costs, with charges calculated based on income and number of children. Therefore, visits to the doctor can cost around ZAR 55 for state healthcare, compared to around ZAR 350 – ZAR 400 per consultation through private healthcare services. And if you’re in the top income bracket, hospital stays can end up costing around €50 a night. Private healthcare costs are of a similar standard to western countries.

There are plans to implement a National Health Insurance scheme to provide more free healthcare services for all. However, until then, there is no official public health insurance scheme in South Africa. 

Although excellent healthcare is available in the country, it is primarily limited to the private and can be costly. Therefore, expats and visitors must invest in international health insurance to access good quality healthcare.

Health Insurance in South Africa

Residents and expats who want 100% of their healthcare costs covered should take out private health insurance, which allows them to choose from the best available healthcare providers. In South Africa, doctors and hospitals often require immediate payment; as a result, if you do have health insurance, you need to ensure your insurance covers the fees and recoup them from your chosen provider after the treatment.

Two of the biggest private healthcare providers are Netcare and Mediclinic. Private healthcare services are accessible through private health insurance. There are many different health insurance providers in the country, a number of which are expat-friendly international companies like Allianz Care and Cigna Global.

Since good quality healthcare is costly in South Africa – and paid for upfront – a robust health insurance plan is best. Generally, less expensive policies only allow access to hospitals and doctors within a specified network.

Payment Methods Available in South Africa

If you are paying for your medical fees privately – without the assistance of health insurance – all hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ practice rooms accept all major credit and debit cards, including Visa and MasterCard. Cash is still a widely accepted payment method too.

Doctors and Specialists in South Africa

Both public and private medical professionals work out of either individual or group practices, clinics, and hospitals. The average price for a private doctor’s consultation is around ZAR 300 – ZAR 400, compared to around ZAR 55 at state-run healthcare facilities.

If you have private health insurance, you will be able to choose your own doctor and will likely have a shorter waiting time for an appointment.

Major cities in the country have many healthcare facilities, from day clinics to large medical centers, and hospitals. The Hospital Association of South Africa lists all private hospital organizations in the country.

For medical check-ups and minor medical issues, you’ll typically visit a general practitioner (GP). As in many other countries, GPs usually operate as part of larger or individual practices.  Consultations with a GP are typically lengthier and perhaps longer than you’re used to. However, you can expect a more personal service with the opportunity to ask questions.

Seeing A Specialist

Like in many other countries in the world, you will usually need to be referred to a specialist by your GP. Specialists typically work within one healthcare or hospital group.

Specialist treatment services are available at state hospitals, but waiting lists can be long. Before selecting a public hospital, always check its level of service. Level 1 hospitals are the cheapest and offer the most basic care, while on the other end of the scale, level 3 hospitals are more expensive and boast more specialist services.

Drugstores And Pharmacies

Pharmacies in South Africa are easily accessible and can be found in shopping malls or main streets. Pharmacies can be in shorter supply in rural areas, however, mail-order and delivery services are generally available. Most pharmacies close at 5 pm or 7 pm and are closed on Sundays, there are, however, some pharmacies attached to hospitals, some of which are open to customers 24/7.

Medications are relatively affordable since the government fixes the prices. Not all drugs are available over the counter, with pharmacies limited to supplying ‘Schedule 3’ drugs – which include oral contraceptives, certain pain killers, insulin, heart, and thyroid medications, but not antibiotics. All of which require a prescription from a registered medical professional.

Pharmacies are run by large chains, and major chains include Dis-Chem, Clicks, and MediRite, which are complemented by many independent pharmacies. Pharmacists in South Africa are well-trained and can offer a degree of medical advice on minor ailments and injuries but must advise on a visit to the doctor if they deem it necessary.

Emergency and After-Hours Healthcare

If you need to contact emergency services in South Africa, you can call 112 from any mobile phone, and it will transfer you to a call center and route you to the emergency service closest to you.

Other useful emergency numbers include:

  • 10111 – Nationwide emergency response
  • 10177 – Ambulance response
  • (+27) 83 123 2345 – National Tourism Information and Safety Line
  • (+27) 82 911 – Netcare 911, a private emergency service, offers road assistance and evacuation, ambulances, private hospitals, and emergency over-the-phone medical advice.

Private healthcare providers also have their own emergency phone numbers. All emergency operators will be able to speak English. Public ambulance services are managed regionally, and response times vary. Private ambulance services, such as those through Netcare, are also available.

After-hours medical clinics are available; however, most patients will usually visit hospitals for after-hours care – whether urgent or general.

Telehealth In South Africa

Although still in the early stages of adoption, all kinds of telehealth services are available in South Africa. The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPSCA) requires all health care practitioners to be registered in accordance with the provisions of the Health Professions Act and the National Health Act. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased telemedicine adoption throughout the country, with many doctors pivoting their services to accommodate online and virtual consultations.

Air Doctor has partnered with several medical professionals throughout the country, which means you can download our app now and book an appointment – either online or in-person – with a qualified medical professional.

Tips For Tourists In South Africa

  • Sunburn is a common risk since the African sun is far fiercer than most people realize.
  • Tourists may be vulnerable to theft, so take safety precautions and remain vigilant.
  • However, when it comes to dealing with people in South Africa, there are no specific cultural rules to follow. South African people are very warm and accommodating and are incredibly hospitable to tourists. So, if you need healthcare assistance or even general information, you will very easily get the help you need.

If you are a tourist in South Africa and would like to speak to a medical professional connected to an international network of doctors, you can make an appointment on the AirDr app right now and have an in-person or virtual consultation within minutes.


Jenny Cohen Drefler

Jenny Cohen Derfler

Air Dr CEO & Co-Founder

Jenny is the CEO and one of the Co-Founders at Air Doctor. She spent more than 20 years at Intel, most recently as general manager of its manufacturing facility in Israel and before that in various engineering and manufacturing roles in Silicon Valley. Air Doctor is her second startup having previously founded electric vehicle company ElectRoad.