While most consider social media a frivolous pastime, only good for killing time or populating reading lists, for Doctor Sindi Van Zyl it is a tool to extend her work as an HIV clinician and patients’ right activist.
With over 10,000 followers, Dr Sindi is a fixture in the SA Twitterscape. Her passion for HIV healthcare is centered on preventing mother-to-child transmission and breaking the stigma around the disease.
“I love using technology; I get to reach people from different walks of life – from Dainfern to Soweto.”
Van Zyl recently stopped practicing medicine to focus on her activism and HIV awareness. Before that she worked at various clinics in Soweto and later joined the non-profit organisation Anova and travelled the country teaching communities how to prevent and treat HIV.
She is currently a columnist on Health24 and has an HIV advice column in Bona magazine, but its her online presence that’s brought her national recognition.
— Joe Maila (@MJMaila) August 30, 2014
Known to many as “the Twitter doctor”, Van Zyl has brought her unique voice and her passion for raising awareness about health issues, and specifically HIV/Aids, to social media.
Twitter is not the only medium she uses; she has an active Facebook page, a public email address, and also uses Qoohme, a social media app that allows users to ask questions anonymously.
On a good day, Van Zyl gets about 30 to 50 emails. When she’s tweeted or written about a particularly interesting topic, her inbox gets flooded with follow-up questions and she can expect over 100 emails.
Although it does not have the high profile of Facebook or Twitter in South Africa, Qoohme has proven to be a useful tool, particularly for people too embarrassed to add their name or email address to a query. These questions range from how to take care of your baby when you are HIV positive to disclosing to your status to your partner.
Van Zyl, who sometimes receives emails from abroad, says the beauty of using technology is that it transcends distance and time.
“I received an email from a young woman from India; her mother had been living with HIV and had a few questions for me. When we talked on the phone she [the daughter] asked me if I speak their language, so I could directly talk to her mother. Unfortunately, I don’t, so she had to be the translator between us. I was able to reassure her and put her mind at ease.”
Still, the system has its limitations.
South Africa only has an internet user base of around 10 million; 6.8-million of these access the internet on their mobile phones.
Some of the people that contact Van Zyl for advice have never used email and she has had to walk through the process of setting up an email account over the phone with them.
“I know that not everyone has internet access or even know how to use it. I don’t even want to think about those I cannot help because that will drive me crazy,” she says.
As in an emergency room or hospital trauma unit, urgency – in replying to emails – can be a matter of life and death.
“I once tweeted about my personal battle with depression and that night I received an email from a woman who was ready to commit suicide. She had reached the end of her rope and she emailed me to just tell me she is done. I immediately replied and helped her get booked into a psychiatric ward at the nearest hospital. She was diagnosed and helped; now she is back home with her family,” she says.
Van Zyl’s service is filling a gap in care – one created by the lack of capacity and professionalism often seen in the public health sector.
Poorly paid medical practitioners working in poorly resourced hospitals are motivated to leave the public sector for private practice, further exacerbating the skills shortage. In 2012, the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) reported that community service doctors and interns often work 200 hours overtime per month, with trainee doctors forfeiting pay on any overtime over 80 hours. In such cases it can be difficult to give each patients all the attention they may need in a consultation.
If doctors were paid better, had better working conditions, and if a lot of things changed, they would act better and save lives. — Doctor Sindi (@sindivanzyl) November 11, 2014
“Our health system is frustrating,” says Van Zyl.
“If a patient has been seen by a doctor, they shouldn’t be emailing me. But medical practitioners are mistreating patients and then they reach out to me out of desperation.”
What started off as innocent pastime has made Doctor Sindi a household name to many. Despite the challenges, she is happy to be making a difference.
Follow Doctor Sindi on Twitter.