Primary healthcare centers in Puerto Rico prepare for next emergency
Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the May 31-June 6, 2018, issue of Caribbean Business.
Self-sufficiency is the new mantra for Primary Health Centers as the company not only recovers from hurricane Maria, but also starts to prepare for a possible future emergency that could impair the island’s electric and sewer services or communications systems, explained Alicia Suárez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Primary Health Association (ASPPR by its Spanish Initials).
The Healthcare Centers, also known as 330 Centers because they were established via Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act, are working with monetary and service donations that include $50 million by pharmaceutical company AbbVie, which is going to be administered by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Direct Relief. Other assistance is the possible allocation of up to $560,000 per center from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to repair or replace damaged equipment or installations.
Not all changes to primary health centers involved infrastructure. After last September’s major hurricane, these centers increased their volume of house calls to provide services and are also looking for more personnel.
“Many of the centers have expanded their house visits service, something that many clinics already offered but in a more limited way. There is so much necessity that many of the centers have needed to recruit more healthcare professionals to visit many patients who are bedridden or otherwise wouldn’t come [to a health center] because they live in areas with little access,” Suárez explained.
She indicated that mental health is one area for which the centers are looking to recruit more people. They are also looking for more social service workers to process the cases.
As for the Direct Relief-administered donation, Suárez explained that the NGO has met with members of the Primary Health Association and, along with the directors of the 330 centers, will establish the specific needs and goals for the island’s more than 90 centers. While Suárez couldn’t specify the final strategy that Direct Relief would pursue, she explained that the NGO has shown interest in providing renewable-energy sources for the centers as well as implementing a telemedicine program.
Aside from establishing self-sufficiency, an important aspect for the executive director is having communications by establishing a radio system that would remain working when a cell tower or internet services collapse. Communications is not limited to more reliable infrastructure but also better receptiveness.
While the Primary Health Association was at the Government Emergency Organization Center from the start, “it was difficult [for people] to understand that, just like hospitals, we were critical infrastructure that warranted immediate support,” Suárez argued.
Although she has an understanding attitude toward the situation, because “it was a catastrophe and a confusing situation,” and “once the government was in a better position to help, they gave health centers priority [status].”
The importance of being able to quickly re-establish the primary health centers is that these institutions could treat patients and provide medication, which would prevent overcrowding and full hospital emergency rooms.
“The health centers are the retaining wall, so patients won’t have to go to the emergency room to seek services, so hospitals can really be for emergencies,” Suárez said.