The Thoracic Unit within the Chris Barnard Division (CBD) of Cardiothoracic Surgery is a tertiary level clinical service provider and training department in general thoracic surgery that adheres to an evidence-based healthcare paradigm, operating within the context of a resource-limited developing world healthcare system with a high burden of disease. 

Thoracic surgery in South Africa developed as a speciality in the years following World War II, focussed mainly on the sequelae of pulmonary tuberculosis and chest trauma. In 1955 the Department of Thoracic Surgery was formally established at UCT under Walter Philips.

When Christiaan Barnard succeeded Walter Philips in 1962, the emphasis in the department swung strongly towards cardiac surgery, and in 1971 the name was formally changed to the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery.

The growth of cardiac surgery dominated in the 70’s but in the ‘80s the Thoracic Service grew strongly, to where over 600 thoracic operations were being done annually by the early 1990’s. However with the changing landscape of healthcare funding in the country this number gradually declined to only about 200 cases annually by 2006. This shrinkage of services has been seen throughout tertiary healthcare in the country.

Excellent clinical co-operation with related disciplines – especially pulmonology, radiology, and oncology – was established early and remains a major strength of the department, both for clinical services and training purposes. Interdisciplinary clinics provide excellent management and planning fora for specific diseases.