'We do not like to go the doctor'

Health minister says infrequent medical visits deepening health care crisis

BY SHANAE STEWART
Observer staff reporter
stewarts@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

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MINISTER of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton has conceded that the country does not spend enough on health care, but he argues that poor consumption habits coupled with infrequent medical check-ups are largely to blame for the high incidence of deaths from non-communicable diseases.

Non-communicable diseases, also called lifestyle diseases, account for some 70 per cent of deaths in Jamaica, according to Tufton.

At this week's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange, the minister noted that of the roughly 18,000 deaths in the island per year, “more than 50 per cent, close to 70 per cent” are people who suffered from lifestyle-related ailments. As examples, he said that over 6,000 Jamaicans die from cardiovascular diseases each year, while over 4,000 die from cancer.

“Lifestyle-related ailments are broken down into four categories — excessive consumption of salt and sugar, fats, alcohol, and tobacco. I say excessive because I am not suggesting that people should not eat salt or sugar,” he said, making reference to a policy to restrict the sale and consumption of sugary drinks in schools and public health institutions.

Tufton added that in addition to the excessive consumption, Jamaicans do not exercise enough and are not aware of their health statuses, which ultimately burden the health sector.

“We do not like to go the doctor, we only go when we are sick. So, as a consequence, what we have is a population with a sick health profile, a lifestyle which enhances that sick health profile, and an infrastructure to respond to that sick health profile that is inadequate and is not keeping apace with the needs of the population,” said the health and wellness minister.

Going further with the statistics, Tufton said one in eight Jamaicans, or 236,200, are believed to be diabetic. One in three Jamaicans, or 684,900 are also believed to be hypertensive, and approximately four out of 10 persons are unaware of their status.

Fifty-four per cent of Jamaicans, totaling 577,300, are classified as overweight or obese. Around two thirds of Jamaican women, 15 years or older, were classified as having pre-obesity or obesity. In spite of those incidences, Tufton said Jamaica only spends about three and a half per cent of its Gross domestic product (GDP) on public health, a figure which he described as insufficient.

“The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that a country should spend at least six per cent on public health. America spends 17 per cent, the United Kingdom spends eight per cent, and Canada spends 10 per cent,” he said, laying out some comparisons.

He noted that the resource allocation to public health in the island somewhat betrays the demands on the system hence the litany of woes, including extended wait times at public health facilities.

For example, Tufton spoke of St Catherine, which has seen significant population growth over the past few years arising primarily from the build-out of housing developments.

“The Spanish Town Hospital was built with 277 beds [but] is now accommodating over 450 beds in a relatively similar space and, as a consequence, you get a pile-up of persons waiting because the population has just outgrown significantly the infrastructure,” he said.

Last month Tufton outlined in Parliament a raft of initiatives which the ministry is expected to carry out, with a view to increasing access to health care, improving consumption habits, and encouraging exercise and frequent health checks, among others.

Incorporating “wellness” into the ministry's name is part of that initiative.


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