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Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Five Reasons Why the Guatemalan Health System is in Deep Crisis
Tatiana Petrovick

Guatemalans struggle with some of the worst health issues in Central America and, in some cases, the world. The country has the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, high maternal and child mortality, and a large prevalence of diabetes and heart diseases. Many of these health problems are concentrated in the lower socioeconomic levels of the country, which largely includes the indigenous Maya. Although healthcare is guaranteed by the Guatemalan constitution, many indigenous families living in rural areas face many barriers and problems while trying to access health care. The top barriers experienced are the following:

Patients wait for medical assistance in the community of Nahualá - Photo Credit: Juan Haro

  • Language: There are 22 indigenous languages spoken in Guatemala. In many rural areas, people only speak their indigenous language. Many people, especially those who do not have access to education, will have little to no knowledge of Spanish. However, many medical professionals only speak Spanish and have no knowledge of the local language in the area in which they are working. As a result, many indigenous people find it difficult to understand their doctor and cannot comprehend basic instructions about their health care.
  • Culture: Many communities have strict cultural practices regarding birth, death, and illness. However, when these people go to a health post or a local hospital, they often feel that their culture and beliefs are not respected. Many will prefer to go to a local traditional healer, who provides plant-based medicine and spiritual guidance. Sometimes, this is all that is needed to cure the ailment, and patients leave satisfied and cured. With more complicated illnesses, traditional remedies do not always work and patients will then arrive at a health post or hospital with advanced or untreated diseases.
  • Poor funding of local health posts: In 2008, the Guatemalan government only spent about $97 per person on public healthcare. (In contrast, the United States spent $7,825.) In practice, this means that many local health posts are understaffed and understocked. The health posts will often not have essential supplies, vaccines, or medications. This has the greatest impact on families with low resources who cannot afford to go to expensive private clinics. Last year, four out of the 44 state hospitals in the country can’t afford to pay medical staff and have shut down all but emergency services, leaving thousands without medical care.

Mayan Families Charlie Gómez Medical Clinic - Photo Credit: Juan Haro

  • Outsourcing of secondary health costs to private companies: Technically, healthcare should be free to all Guatemalan people. However, many secondary services are not available at public health posts and have been contracted out to private companies. Patients will often have to go to a private laboratory to get blood drawn or to a private imaging company to receive an x-ray. These services are often too expensive for families to afford.
  • Lack of specialists in rural areas: Over 80% of the doctors in Guatemala work in Guatemala City. This means that many specialist services and technical tests, such as MRIs or CAT scans, are not available to people who live in rural areas. In order to receive these services, patients in rural areas would have to take a day off of work, pay money out of pocket for the bus fare, and travel many hours to the capital. This is difficult and expensive for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

These barriers make up a disturbing picture. Most of the indigenous families living in rural areas cannot afford desperately needed health care when a family member falls ill. Thankfully, Mayan Families is working to change this problem. The Medical Program provides world-class care to patients free of charge, including primary care, health education, specialist referrals, and all medications. Additionally, Mayan Families strives to create a welcoming environment by providing culturally sensitive care in each patient’s native language.

To help us provide care to the people who need it most, please consider donating to the General Medical Fund today.


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