There are days when I feel like a balm in Gilead and then there are days when I feel like a band-aid on a diabetic foot. On days like those, when my best intentions butt up against the machinery of social injustice like a very small recalcitrant cog in a very large and impersonal wheel, on those days I dream a little dream about the kind of system I want to work in, and the kind of care I want my patients to receive.
In my dream, healthcare is widely acknowledged as a fundamental right. Instead of flexing their defense budgets, countries flex their high life expectancy and superb quality of life. Within governments across the world, health and wellness ministries get the lion’s share of resources because without them people would literally die. This includes ministries responsible for food, housing, water and electricity so that people can eat with clean hands in safe dwellings and store food in healthy ways.
In my dream, we preach and practice the bio-psycho-social model of health by recruiting and training a large cadre of mental health and social health professionals, alongside nurses, doctors and pharmacists. Mental health isn’t stigmatized, it’s a routine part of formal education (along with gender and cultural studies) from the kindergarten level onward.
In my dream, no one struggles to pay for healthcare because there’s no such thing as ‘payment’ for a service that is essential to human well-being. Healthcare providers are treated with dignity and respect by their employers, who understand the traumatizing nature of the work they do and encourage them to take care of their own health. This way they do not fantasize about migrating with their expertise to work in more lucrative environments. We retain enough healthcare providers of various disciplines so there are no long waits for non-urgent care. We have enough equipment and people to maintain the equipment because management no longer believes in quick fixes and ignoring a problem until someone else has to deal with it.
Patients can wake up at a sensible hour and easily travel to their nearest health facility, because it is always less than an hour away. They can visit their provider, do their investigations and fill their prescriptions on the same day. Language interpreters are available, bathrooms are gender-inclusive and all facilities are accessible for persons with disabilities.
Because providers take the time to explain complex treatment regimens with patience and empathy, patients take an active role in their healthcare and don’t only worry about their health when they get sick. Because there is close communication between primary and secondary healthcare providers, treatment interventions are oriented around the patient, their family and community, instead of a rigid hierarchy. We change our model of medical education to prioritize prevention, primary care and public health instead of obscure diagnoses and competitive sub-specializations, recognizing that these are necessary things but the vast majority of medical graduates will not become pediatric neuro-oncologists.
I dream a dream where even in the tiniest clinic in the furthest district beyond the last streetlight a midwife or a health inspector or a community aide has the power to change a system that perpetuates the very conditions we try so hard to treat. Instead of feeling like a useless band-aid, doomed to watch the wound fester and never heal, I hope we can reach for the idea that there is a better way.
When we feel like things can change, we might actually try to change them.
And then, who knows what might happen? This is the part where I always wake up, shake the sleep from my eyes and get back in the arena to fight. Another day of being balm and band-aid, the believer and the battle cry. Another day to dream and press on, to make the dream come true.
I believe that healthcare is a human right. No one should have to suffer from a treatable disease because they cannot afford to access treatment, and no one should end up in debt after surviving illness. Jamaica is one of the few countries in the world that offers universal healthcare: Jamaican citizens pay no user fees when they access healthcare in public facilities. We also have the advantage of an extensive primary care network of health centres (clinics) that can be easily accessed by most communities.
There are many people for whom this type of healthcare is the only option. And there are many people for whom this type of healthcare is a last, last resort. Because I spend most of my time working closely with the former group, the disdain of the latter group always takes me by surprise.
I enjoy my work. I and humbled and gratified to watch people come into clinic worried or in pain and leave feeling calm and pain-free. I am delighted to complete an application form to the National Health Fund (NHF) so that my patients with chronic illnesses can access much-needed medication for a fraction of the cost. I am happy to sit and listen to the hard stories of their life, knowing they don’t often get the kindness of a friendly ear. I am excited to teach them about nutrition and how their medications work – even better when they actually heed my advice.
But there is still so much more that can be done, and that is why Jamaicans who can afford to will always choose private healthcare.
After I see a three-year old with an ear infection and write a prescription for antibiotics, the nearest public pharmacy is too far away for the parent to consider making the trip. In Hanover where I work, there is only one public pharmacy in the capital town of Lucea. Not to mention, the NHF only covers drugs for chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma. Antibiotics and painkillers, which cost thousands of dollars, are not included. Private health insurance is not a feasible option for most of my patients either. If it was, I’m certain they wouldn’t be lining up in the clinic.
Another issue is the wait time. It’s a running joke, a widely known fact and a painful embarrassment that the waiting time in public health facilities is really, really long. Visiting the health centre for a routine visit can take hours, if not all day. Getting an appointment at the specialist clinic in our nearest tertiary hospital takes months. Waiting on an elective operation like a hernia repair can take years. Then after waiting for so long to have their concern dealt with, patients often encounter burnt out and unsympathetic health care providers who are tired and stressed from seeing too many patients with too few resources.
When it comes to diagnosing diseases the wait time gets even more sinister. Waiting for a Pap smear result in the public system takes anywhere from three to nine months, if it ever comes back at all. Privately? That takes two weeks. Screening mammograms (recommended annually) aren’t offered in the public system in Western Jamaica any at all. Biopsies (for example, when we’re suspecting cancer) in the public system have to be expedited by paying for them, otherwise the result could take months to return.
Contrast the crowded, hot waiting area of a public health centre with the air-conditioned insularity of a private office. A doctor or nurse who smiles with you instead of frowning at the added workload at the end of an already long day. The appeal of private healthcare goes beyond shorter wait times to the perception that having to pay for something automatically means it is higher in quality. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Today I only want to wonder what public healthcare would look like if it received the lion’s share of resources. What if we had enough space in our waiting areas so that people didn’t have to sit outside? What if we had enough staff so that essential tasks didn’t have to be neglected? What if we had enough vital, essential and necessary drugs so that people didn’t have to choose between buying food and buying their medication? What if we injected resources into preventative services (health education, screening programmes, behaviour change) so that we could ease the burden on our hospitals? What if our policies ensured that staff could take proper vacation leave (not this minuscule two weeks a year that most people save up to take two months at once)? What if we had enough money to pay people so they wouldn’t need to add second and third jobs to try and make ends meet, further contributing to their burnout?
What if there was no one who benefits from an arrangement that strips the powerless and poor of their dignity while literally condemning them to die?
Universal healthcare implies some kind of equity, but there are too many gaps in our system that people can fall through. The burden of filling these cracks is carried by people who are already struggling under a system that does harm to their well-being. Perhaps when we emerge from this public health crisis, the government will finally recognize the undervalued role of public health and primary care and make meaningful efforts to improve the quality of health we offer our people.
From time to time I get quizzical looks when I tell people that I work in primary care (aka clinic) in Hanover, one of Jamaica’s most rural parishes. The eyebrows climb even higher when I further explain that no, I don’t have a private office somewhere.
Fellow doctors wonder how I survive on the salary (and compared to my hospital colleagues it is meagre). Patients who connect with me are disappointed that I only work in hot, overcrowded government facilities and not some low-traffic office with an air-conditioned waiting room. Would-be mentors are perhaps bemused by my preference for this rural space that offers little in the way of career advancement.
But I continue to choose Hanover year after year, even though my feet itch with wanderlust and three years is the longest time I’ve stayed in one place since high school.
Well, the parish is beautiful. Lucea overlooks a picturesque bay of rolling blue sea. Cascade overlooks lush green hills of swaying bamboo. For almost the entire length of the highway that passes through Hanover the sea is a few scant feet away from the road, replete with stunning sunsets and the cool calm breeze of true island living. But that isn’t it.
I stay in Hanover because I believe there is so much good I can do here.
Whether it’s running the parish’s first treatment clinic for persons living with HIV, or saying yes to every single patient that turns up at clinic in the hills no matter how full we already are, or spending the extra time to listen to an old man reminisce about his favourite son – there is so much good I have done, and so much that I can still do.
Clinics have a bad rap among patients. Somehow people developed the idea that hospital doctors are better (this is laughable because Hanover is so tiny that the same clinic doctors often also work at the hospital) and that clinics are not worth their time. But in the time that I’ve been working in Hanover (did I mention it’s been three years?) I’ve been so lucky to work alongside doctors and nurses who care passionately about the overall well-being of their patients, not only about their blood pressure or HbA1c.
The magic of primary care is really how one doctor or one nurse or one community health aide can make a dramatic difference in the outcome of a person’s health. The beauty and the privilege of my job is watching people not just improve their condition, but thrive with care and support.
The fulfillment that I get from my daily work reminds me why people look at medicine as a calling and not just a job. And while I won’t always work at the level of individual patient care, the purpose of my duties will always remain the same: to bring quality healthcare to the people who truly need it. They say you never forget your first love; and wherever I work in the world whether elsewhere in Jamaica or further abroad it is and always will be Hanover that has my heart.
It’s 4:30AM. The sun isn’t up yet but Miss Dee is already making her way up the rocky lane to the main road of her community where she will catch the first ride going into town. In her purse she carries enough money for taxi fare both ways, two mint balls and a wrapped up piece of plastic with her tattered clinic appointment card and her last prescription. She will reach the clinic by 6AM so that she can collect one of the first numbers. When she arrives she is the third person there. They settle in to wait until 7:30 when the first security guard will open the gate.
Forty-one years ago in the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, when Miss Dee was still a bright young girl, leaders from all over the world gathered to make a decision about keeping people healthy. The Declaration of Alma Ata, as it would come to be known, states firmly that primary health care is the key to achieving ‘Health for All’ – the universally accepted goal that promotes the health of all people.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s get a few definitions out of the way. What is health, exactly? The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete mental, physical and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. And they should know. This sounds like something everyone should have, right?
Health is a state of complete mental, physical and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity
World Health Organization
‘Health for All‘ is the slogan for universal health coverage: no person or population gets left behind. Women, LGBTQ+, disabled individuals, persons living with HIV – everyone is included! Unfortunately, in some places, not everyone gets included all the time.
Now what is primaryhealthcare? This is a way of thinking about and organizing the different aspects of health care. Definitions of primary healthcare often make reference to essential health care and primary care (not the same thing). A primary health care system has a few key characteristics.
It’s based on principles that are scientifically sound, and socially acceptable
Primary healthcare is universal – it includes every single person
Primary healthcare aims to provide improved access to health services, financial risk protection and improved health outcomes
And finally primary care refers to those services that are delivered in the community (usually at a clinic or health centre) by doctors, nurses and allied health workers (also called primary care providers). These services are often someone’s first point of contact with the health care system.
So if primary health care is the key to achieving #HealthforAll, and if healthy people live better, stronger lives then investing in a strong primary health care system is the best and most cost-effective way to ensure a healthy, productive population.
Remember Miss Dee from earlier? She’s not real, but her story is. This clinic-before-daybreak sojourn is the reality for a majority of citizens who access services at health centres (clinics) in Jamaica. People leave home early hoping that they will get through the clinic quickly. But in reality reaching clinic by 6AM doesn’t guarantee that Miss Dee will be finished before 10AM or even before noon. Depending on the type of clinic, number of patients, availability of staff or occurrence of emergencies, Miss Dee may end up waiting until 3PM or later before she’s seen by a medical doctor (her primary reason for going to clinic in the first place). And remember she only brought enough money for transportation – not for lunch – and she left home too early to have a proper breakfast.
Public health care in Jamaica is a running joke. Meaning, the kind of joke people run from. Letters to editors, prime time news stories, and overheard conversations complain about common themes like long wait times, rude staff, lack of resources, lack of space and limited accessibility. The feeling of the man on the street (who only complains to overburdened health care staff and never to his chair-cushioned and air-conditioned MP) is that average people, poor people, who need and use these services are grossly neglected. Politicians and the well-to-do get private, highly resourced health care but the woman on the street gets what the duck got.
So what actually is the situation? The Layman’s Doctor recently posted a guide for people accessing care at their local health centres, in which she specifically addressed the notoriously long wait times and cautioned patients to prepare for it. For people who don’t work in or don’t access care in these clinics, it can seem like another world.
There are large crowds on days when a doctor is present at the clinic, and often the seating provided is inadequate. As we approach the summer months, there is no air conditioning, and clinics in the country don’t always have fans installed. The patient to staff ratio is usually high, which further prolongs the wait time, and to top it off most health centres do not have a pharmacy attached. This means that after seeing the physician patients have to get their medication at another (sometimes inaccessible) location, that may or may not have all the drugs they need.
If you’re frustrated just reading this, you aren’t alone. Experts the world over have agreed that accessible and universal primary care is critical to improving health outcomes. That means that people with diabetes won’t get their legs chopped off, and people diagnosed as obese can be prevented from getting diabetes in the first place.
In their technical series on primary health care the WHO reviewed systematic reviews and meta-analyses from a broad sweep of countries. The results were unanimous. When it comes to people dying (all-cause and specific-cause mortality), there is strong evidence that supplying primary care providers (ie clinic staff) leads to less people dying overall. Primary care providers save lives, y’all. And strong evidence that continuity of care (meaning the same doctor, same facility or strong linkages between doctors and facilities) also leads to less people dying.
For people who care more about the bottom line, the same review also examined health system efficiency (ie best bang for the buck). They found strong evidence that a supply of primary care providers reduces the number of avoidable hospitalizations, and evidence that case management programmes (think social workers) could reduce the number of total hospitalizations as well.
And for the social justice warriors (because health care is a human right), there is evidence that primary care, as compared with other types of health care, can improve access to health services, especially for disadvantaged adults.
Full disclosure – most of these studies took place in English-speaking high income countries but the evidence can be translated universally. Read the full 28-page review here: The Economic Case for Primary Care.
So if you were Minister of Health and you had to decide how to spend the meager Health budget, how would you allocate the funds? In Jamaica there are no user fees for nationals at public facilities (this does not mean health care is free!), so all the money comes from you (and a few donor agencies). You have to keep hospitals open, keep clinics running, pay your staff, provide medication, refurbish and maintain equipment, buy resources and develop media campaigns that remind people to “love yuh body, treat yuh body right“.
What’s your number one priority?
If you guessed hospitals – then you’d be right. . . Right on the side of our current Health Ministry, which is the wrong side.
Hospitals are undeniably important to the delivery of health care. Secondary and tertiary centres (smaller and larger hospitals) are vital and necessary, but they are vital and necessary in the way that having a spare tire is necessary. They’re super important if you get a flat tire, but it’s way simpler and easier to invest your time in avoiding a flat tire in the first place.
Now I know what you’re thinking – “But I can’t control when I get a flat tire!!”. And I hear you, shit happens. You drop into a pothole on the North South highway and pow! Yuh haffi draw fi di spare. But suppose you were using your spare tire every single day? If you had to choose between keeping your tires in good condition and avoiding potholes or buying a really expensive spare tire (complete with repairing the damaged tire, and the loss of work time that it’s going to take you to get the tires sorted out) which would you choose?
I really want to know, so leave a comment with your pick. And if you’re one of those brilliant minds out there thinking that this wouldn’t have happened if the roads were properly maintained in the first place then congratulations, you’ve just hit on another pillar of primary care – multi-sectoral policy and action. Because there are a lot of other things in the world that impact a person’s health, not just access to health services.
What I’m trying to say in my long rambling way is that investing the bulk of health budgets into hospitals isn’t going to yield any long-term improvement in the health of the population. Hospitals are necessary to deal with emergencies but, as we’ve shown, having a strong primary care system means there won’t be as many emergencies. A robust primary care system can handle minor emergencies and prevent major ones, reducing the burden on the hospitals and other referral centres.
So back to Miss Dee. By pouring more time and energy and investment into making primary care stronger, better and more effective Miss Dee won’t feel compelled to leave her house in the pitch-dark pre-dawn, risking ankle and foot injury on the uneven road. She could get to clinic at 8:30 or even 9 for her appointment, do her checks and see the doctor by 10, then get her medication (for free) at the same facility and return home in time for lunch. If we invested the right way, with the needs of the patient at the heart of our activities then even if Miss Dee was a 16 year old lesbian seeking advice on safe sex, or an 80 year old blind woman in a wheelchair she would have the same access, protection and positive outcome.
Health isn’t just for the good of the individual, it’s for the good of the country. Healthy people are more productive, and more healthy working people means more GDP. It’s time for all our leaders to make good on their promise – ‘Health for All’ is a human right.
It’s officially a year since I left hospital medicine and ventured into the clinics and primary care. Like Lot’s daughters I never looked back to watch the world I once lived in burn, almost literally. I’ve wholeheartedly embraced this strange new territory and I’m coming to think of it as my home.
There’s a lot going on with primary care in Jamaica. One news story just a few months ago reported on the high level of dissatisfaction patients have with the way service is delivered. Primary care is plagued by low resources, for a number of unfortunate reasons. And primary care as a system is badly fragmented. There are many gaps in this new world.
When I walked sprinted out of secondary care I did it with a vow in my heart: I would try as hard as I could to prevent the untimely deaths and strokes and heart attacks that were caused by manageable chronic diseases. I was eager, I was willing and I was hopelessly naive. Stepping into clinic was like being splashed in the face with cold water; determination would only take me so far, about as far as the burnt out bridges of patient behaviour and system capacity. My sprint slowed when I realized this could not be the only direction I expended my efforts in. I needed to study the system to understand how to improve it.
So I began to learn, as much as I could and as often as anyone would let me. I didn’t just start to learn about holistic patient care, I started reaching for every training session that passed my way. The closer I got to the source, meaning the Ministry of Health, the more I was able to identify the gaps between protocol and reality. We play a hard-core game of Chinese telephone with our standards that usually ends with the front-line health care worker simply doing the best they can with what they have. This system was a mystery I was determined to unravel, and that curiosity illuminated an unexpected career goal.
I love organization. I love rules and protocols and standards and guidelines. It tickles my fancy to improve system efficiency, to find innovative and easier methods to meet goals and targets. And as it turns out, all those things that people in high school called me weird for liking are actually super important to the world of work. Those skills and interests can translate into actual jobs, with the right qualifications to back them up.
So it seems that after all these years of worry about a loveless career I am now falling, stumbling, eagerly crawling toward a purpose that resonates with my own ‘weird’ frequency. Hurrah.
Firmly in the category of Things No One Asked For (wedged between merchandising coffee mugs and your annual pelvic exam) this one is all about how I spent my Senior House Officer year. If anyone is still reading this to get some idea about medical life in Jamaica, you’re in luck. Everyone else, bear with me.
For my SHO year (the second year of relative supervision, coming after internship and before postgraduate study), I spent four months at the hospital in Internal Medicine and eight months in primary care bouncing around the clinics of St. James and Hanover. I had wanted an even six month split but the powers-that-be changed the schedule from two six-month rotations to three rotations of four months each, likely as an incentive for doctors to spend at least some of their time in primary care (which is woefully understaffed).
While I enjoy solving the diagnostic mysteries of Internal Medicine and relish the mental challenges of our limited resource setting, I did not particularly like my time at the hospital. One of the reasons is the aforementioned limited resources, which made it exponentially harder to get the job done (the job being getting the patient better and out of the hospital) but another more important reason was the unhealthy and sometimes toxic working atmosphere.
Doctors in hospitals across the world have to battle against so many barriers to effective patient care. Sure there are administrative and technical hurdles, but one of the most damaging and pervasive problems doctors face is other doctors. We can be unkind and unsympathetic toward our colleagues, we can be harsh and critical where kindness and compassion are needed. We can be overly competitive, deliberately misleading, and frankly aggressive. Specialties often argue instead of cooperating, departmental heads are sometimes overbearing and the support staff is at times less than supportive.
I frequently left work feeling like I spent the last 8-36 hours running a hamster wheel, exhausting myself and getting nowhere. For all my efforts I was yet to see any noticeable improvement in the quality of care being offered, and in fact quality of care was on the decline as Cornwall Regional was on the brink of a crisis by the time I had moved to my next rotation.
Unlike its older brother, primary care has no pretensions about the level of care it is able to offer. Clinics don’t promise CAT scans and then tell you the machine isn’t working; or promise urgent lab results that take hours to be processed. Primary care understands that its role is to prevent and screen, to catch the life-threatening emergencies before they become life-threatening. And that pace is so far suiting me just fine.
Hanover is the smallest parish in Jamaica, splitting its geography between enchanting sea vistas and rolling hills of green green bamboo. I spent my four months here really sharpening my clinical skills and patient interactions. I honed my management of chronic illnesses and developed some much-needed confidence (from all the time spent in clinic by myself because there weren’t enough senior doctors available). Hanover’s narrow, winding roads are where I learnt to drive and the country clinics reinforced all the stories I hear about the generosity of rural folk. I was sad to leave it behind.
(Spoiler alert: I’m stationed back in Hanover for the foreseeable future)
The camaraderie and team spirit were like a breath of fresh air after Cornwall’s sometimes hostile overtones. I felt more comfortable offering care at a less urgent pace (even though we had our fair share of emergencies!) and I appreciated the opportunity to effect behaviour change before it got to the stage where tertiary or secondary care was needed.
Despite challenges with patients’ educational level and access to care I still believe that primary care is where our efforts need to be concentrated if we are ever going to make our country truly healthy.
But enough about me. SHO year is all about testing the waters and seeing where your passion lies. It’s about picking up skills you think are important and spending time with physicians or surgeons or anesthetists who you think can teach you a thing or two. Internship is merely meant to be survived; SHO is where you thrive. Attack the smorgasbord of hospital specialties like an all-you-can-eat buffet, or settle down to dine at one specialty for the whole time – it’s up to you. Just remember that along the way you’re molding yourself into the medical officer or resident who will be the ‘senior’ by the start of the next year.
Not always on purpose, but often enough that even my super-oblivious brain has recognized the trend. In his more romantic moments, my current partner says that my optimism is the perfect antithesis to his cynicism. In less romantic moments, he expresses great concern about my intelligence.
Running headlong and heedless from hospital medicine into primary care with the half-baked hopes of “fixing Jamaica’s healthcare problem at the source” will not rank highly in my self estimation. And it was silly of me to think for a second that the only thing broken was the almost universal lack of health education among Jamaican patients.
I will probably never know how wrong I was, because I will probably never fully comprehend the multiplicity of the flaws afflicting the delivery and reception of our healthcare. From patient contact to policy making, I think there are a myriad of ways for either the system or the client to fail each other.
This is where my optimism wanes. I doubt myself. It’s one thing to be exasperated by a health illiterate patient in the emergency department, mentally berating primary care doctors for not taking the time to have proper dialogue with their clients. It is quite another thing to be confronted by climbing physician:patient ratios, dwindling consultation times, and perhaps the most frustrating of all: repeat offenders. The patients who, despite adequate counselling and interventions, persist in their unhealthy behaviours.
Cynicism rolls in like a dark cloud, closely followed by the lightning storm of burnout. The horizon of my imagined clinical nirvana (where patients and physicians work together to help patients live longer, better lives) all but disappears.
The dream of an effective and efficient health care system isn’t inherently stupid. Yes, I was foolish to think I could effect change just by wishing for it hard enough, but the bottom line is that change needs to be effected. And the nugget of reality at the core of my fantasy is the desire to be a part of that process.
If I just re-frame my ideas of how exactly health care reform will happen (a lot more meetings and red tape, and a lot less glitter and fairy dust), the cloud of cynicism drifts out of sight. It will be longer, more tedious and may not turn out quite the way I expect (like most adult dreams) but that is okay. I don’t have to throw away the dream, I only have to take it down from that lofty shelf and actually work at it.