Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley is joined by representatives from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to summarise their discussions on collaborative approaches to regional health care. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Providing health care in the Caribbean is becoming more complex as small countries attempt to retain staff, contend with cancers and other noncommunicable diseases, and keep hospital services financially viable.

But regional health leaders are seeking new ways to collaborate on meeting citizens’ needs, they said Oct. 12 during a press conference that capped off two Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States meetings in the Virgin Islands.

The VI hosted the 36th OECS Pool Procurement Services meeting on Oct. 10, as well as the ninth OECS Council of Ministers of Health meeting on Oct. 11-12.

The meetings gave health leaders an opportunity to meet, discuss common problems, and make plans for sharing medical resources, OECS Director General Dr. Didacus Jules said.

Other attendees

Besides OECS health ministers, attendees included representatives from the Pan American Health Organisation, the Caribbean Public Health Agency, and the World Paediatric Project.

“It was a very good meeting, and some critical decisions were made,” Dr. Jules said.

St. Lucia Health, Wellness and Elderly Affairs Minister Moses Jean Baptiste, who visited the territory for the first time last week, said the meeting proved enlightening.

“Our meetings were very frank,” he said. “They were very upfront. We looked at the problems in the OECS squarely, and we tried our very best to have a plan of action which could cause our various issues to be looked at in the coming months and in the coming years.”

Messrs. Baptiste and Jules said they greatly appreciated a tour of the Dr. D. Orlando Smith Hospital, especially considering that St. Lucia is building a new hospital.

Regional view

Dr. Jules explained that such regional meetings also help leaders understand specialised facilities like cancer treatment centres that are coming online in the region.

When member states share such facilities, citizens benefit from specialised services without every jurisdiction having to invest in them individually, he added.

Meeting attendees also discussed economic management issues.

Health and Social Development Minister Vincent Wheatley, who chaired the OECS PPS meeting, noted the VI’s ongoing struggle to offer competitive salaries to hospital staff, especially given its proximity to the United States.

However, Dr. Jules said member states are working together to keep nurses in the region even if they move among countries.

‘Win-win’ proposal

One possibility they have considered is working with doctors and nurses to establish two-year rotations among states, giving them access to salaries in one state while preserving their tenure in another for their return, he explained.

“That way, there’s a win-win for all sides,” he said.

When medical staff move to the US or United Kingdom, he added, states should work to keep in contact with them.

“A lot of other arrangements can be put in place to ensure that during that time, they are given opportunities to upskill themselves, so when they return, they come back better off financially, better skilled, and more reinforced in their capacity and their determination to make a difference at home,” Dr. Jules said.

This also applies to former Caribbean residents living abroad among the diaspora, according to the director general.

“There are many creative things we can do to turn what appears to be a disadvantage into an advantage,” he said.

Asked about the overall economic viability of health services, Mr. Wheatley said the territory plans to seek the consultancy services of a health economist.

Mental health

Also during the press conference, Mr. Wheatley invited the BVI Health Services Authority’s Mental Health Services Unit to present on its recently renewed outreach efforts.

Dr. Virginia Rubaine highlighted recent antistigma campaign efforts seeking to normalise conversations about mental health.

Those conversations will prove useful to the OECS Youth Advisory Network’s work, Dr. Jules explained.

A call for better data

In response to a question about the number of cancer cases in the territory, Mr. Wheatley said reliable data is needed to fully understand and address the situation.

Dr. Jules added that collecting such data would also be useful in region-wide efforts to address noncommunicable diseases.

OECS is currently collaborating with the World Bank on a five-year project to provide reliable regional information on health concerns to inform states’ decision-making.

Despite the lack of comprehensive statistics here, Mr. Wheatley said it is clear that cervical cancer, breast cancer, and cardiovascular issues are on the rise. He added that the OECS aims to put special effort into eliminating cervical cancer considering that it is easily preventable but deadly to women in the region.

Hand in hand with that effort will be educational campaigns focused on healthy diets and other lifestyle choices, he added.

Dr. Jules said regional backing also makes it easier to work with major food producers to promote healthier products.

Overall, Mr. Wheatley said the meetings were a good opportunity to discuss not only what needs to be done to improve health services, but also how best to go about it.

Speakers invited members of the public to subscribe to the OECS newsletter, available on the organisation’s website, to learn more about all the decisions made.