The health of Bahamians then and now
The Bahamas has celebrated 38 years of Independence since that historic day when thousands of Bahamians gathered at Clifford Park on July 10, 1973 to watch the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the aquamarine, gold and black of the Bahamian flag which signalled the country’s independence from British rule. Since that day, many things have been upgraded in the almost four decades of this nation’s freedom: Domestic architecture has gone from primarily wood and clapboard materials to the use of concrete and steel to build structures. Unpaved trails made out of necessity are now asphalts roads and vehicles which were once seen as luxury items are now a commonplace commodity. These may sound like major changes throughout the years, but one area that has seen an even more substantial change is healthcare. Dr. Patrick Whitfield, family medicine practitioner at Oxford Medical Center says Bahamians may not be as advanced in terms of being as technologically savvy as other parts of the world but in our 38 years of governmental freedom, healthcare services have made leaps and bounds.
“Like most country’s in The Caribbean, we developed from a colonialist background and were limited by what we could achieve with their assistance,” says Dr. Whitfield. “If you look back at the 60s and 70s most of the health problems were driven by poor housing, poverty, inadequate hygiene measures, difficulties accessing water supplies and limitations in healthcare, so most of the illnesses and deaths you would’ve seen at that time, around Independence would’ve been related to infectious diseases like gastroenteritis and tuberculosis or from malnutrition, infant death and maternal death. As we grew as people and advanced beyond Independence and technologies were introduced, many changes, good and bad have occurred in this field.”
A 34-year veteran of the medical field, Dr. Whitfield says some of the improvements in housing, such as the introduction of indoor running water, the decline in poverty and advancements in technology–especially as it relates to health care–are responsible for the gross improvements in healthcare in the country over the last few decades. Things such as the overall better life expectancy and general health due to easier access to medical facilities and the availability of vaccinations have increased the quality of life to common health problems prevalent in the early 1970s like tuberculosis and sudden infant death which still exist today, but in greatly reduced numbers.
“While things do look good and Bahamians generally do seem healthier today than they were almost 40 years ago this does not mean all is well,” says Dr. Whitfield. “From Independence to now there is no doubt that healthcare has improved as there are more accurate devices that can be utilized to better treat patients. The numbers of doctors have jumped from around 150 to 200 in the 1970s to over 1,000 practitioners in the public and private sectors today, not to mention there are more public clinics available in New Providence and the Family Islands and the Department of Health surveillance teams do a great job tracking the root of outbreaks and treating them so they don’t develop into epidemics. In fact,
Dr. Patrick Whitfield
we have not had a major outbreak in the last 10 to 15 years.”
The medical practitioner says it isn’t healthcare that is the main concern today, but the people themselves who pose a problem to the continued improvements to general health as they are not as active as they were, nor do they eat as nutritiously as the people did decades ago. Dr. Whitfield says people are generally living longer, but are suffering from lifestyle related problems such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks — illnesses that were not common in the 1970s because more people walked or rode a bicycle to where they had to go. He says being indoors watching television was not an all-day activity as active outdoor activities were far more popular. He also says, processed and fast foods and even fried foods were not the norm since more people ate root vegetables and fresh foods as their general source of nutrition. The doctor says all of those healthy practices changed in correlation to the advancements of healthcare and the ever-expanding world.
“The 1970s can be seen as an epoch in which the diseases we see today were just rearing their heads. Prior to that time things like cancer and heart attacks weren’t common and if they did occur it happened in the older folk,” says the physician. “Diabetes was something you developed later in life and often was more genetically based. However, with things becoming easier and more accessible, doctors saw a change in the medical needs of the patients. We started seeing more young people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s come in with diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and cancer. Today it has become so common that many doctors don’t even blink an eye at what would’ve been a phenomena years ago.”
Another change that has caused the healthcare system to evolve is the need for more accident and emergency services. Dr. Whitfield says there are far more instances of people needing medical attention due to everyday physical violence, trauma and accidents. Repairing broken bones was reasonably common decades ago, but he says the sophistication of surgical work for major injuries has become far more necessary throughout the years. Due to this, he says the cost of medical attention has sky-rocketed from being less than $100 to going well into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending on your needs.
“It’s amazing that overall we have made great steps forward in such little time which is good for all parties involved, but at the same time it’s unfortunate that the conveniences, lifestyles and practices of one generation have become all but lost to another.”
Dr. Whitfield anticipates healthcare continuing to improve and the confidence by the people continuing to develop in Bahamian physicians, because he says there are few medical emergencies that cannot be done locally, compared to years ago when patients had to leave the country to seek specialized medical help.
“We are indeed advancing and as long as we have patients with new and different needs we can expect continued expansion in this field,” he said.