Ministry issues appeal as 1 in 3 private doctors close offices

Executive editor – special assignment

Monday, March 30, 2020

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Almost a third of private doctors here have closed their offices, most of them in the vulnerable age group for COVID-19, or novel coronavirus disease 2019, a health and wellness ministry spokesman said at the weekend.

The development prompted the Government to appeal to all Jamaicans, especially the medical fraternity, to put all hands on deck in the national effort to contain the spread of the virus which has infected 32 people here up to Saturday.

Contacted for comment, health and wellness ministry Permanent Secretary Dunstan Bryan said the private health service is needed more now than ever, as the public health service cannot win the coronavirus battle alone.

“We understand why the more elderly doctors in the vulnerable group — 65 years and over — would wish to remain at home, particularly those who are not in possession of personnel protective equipment.

“But as much as possible we need all hands on board,” said Bryan, the energetic right-hand man to Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.

The Jamaica Observer has learnt that several private hospitals have been informing the public that should they suspect they have COVID-19 , they should call the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

Bryan argued that the private sector medical service owed it to their loyal clientèle to be there for them in an hour of great need, and this would be no time to abandon them. Moreover, the public health service was already almost at capacity prior to the COVID-19 outbreak here.

“We were already stretched before the outbreak. In January, 90 per cent of public hospitals were already at [bed] capacity. Since then, we have had to commandeer a ward in all hospitals to prepare for the expected increase in confirmed cases,” he said.

“That meant sending home patients who were not in an acute condition. It is not difficult to see that if the patients who normally go to the private facilities are turned away, they would be forced to turn to the overstretched public institutions,” Bryan argued.

Last week, Minister Tufton had appealed to private doctors to avoid “or be discouraged from shutting down their operations”.

He said information coming to the health authorities suggested that some private practitioners are closing shop, either because they feel they're not fully equipped to carry out their duties or they have other concerns.

“If you have an issue and you would like to engage us in conversation we're available for that type of conversation,” he said at a news conference to update the country on the Government's strategies to combat the virus.

Tufton argued that when private doctors, who see about 55 per cent of the population on a normal basis, close their practice, “it creates a crowding effect on the hospitals which we really would like to avoid”.

A 2017 survey showed that the majority of Jamaica's 318 Government health facilities and 24 hospitals were over 50 years old and needed refurbishing or rebuilding. At the same time, the public health system was losing nurses at an alarming rate.

The number of physicians per 1,000 people in Jamaica was 1.32 as of 2017, down from 1.40 in 1997.

However, Bryan said the health and wellness ministry was confident that Jamaicans would rise to the occasion as they have always done.

On Saturday, in its daily update, the ministry said the island now has 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“None of the individuals in that number are doctors or nurses,” the ministry emphasised in response to what it described as misinformation being circulated that nurses at University Hospital of the West Indies had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Of the 32 confirmed cases, 21 are imported cases and eight are import-related. Three are under investigation,” the ministry said.

“The island has so far tested 257 samples, including 61 that were tested for severe acute respiratory infections. Thirty-two of the 257 tested positive and 221 tested negative. This represents a positivity yield of 12.5 per cent. Four results are pending,” the ministry added.

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