Op-ed — St. Thomas
The VI Department of Health (DOH) hosted activities in commemoration of National Public Health Week, observed nationwide this year, April 2-8, with the theme A Healthier America Begins Today. This themeemphasized the belief of the American Public Health Association that through prevention, we can all profoundly impact the nation’s health and broadly focused on preventive measures related to healthy eating, acting living (exercise), communicable and chronic diseases, reproductive health and emotional well-being.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the Virgin Islands and US Mainland. We all have close friends and family members who have died from a heart attack or a stroke. Heart failure is very prevalent in the territory and death from heart failure is an extremely miserable way to die. Patients become increasingly fatigued, limited in their activity and unable to get a “good breath” and eventually slowly drown to death. Heart failure can be caused by many problems but the leading causes are heart attacks and high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a very serious problem and can lead to heart attacks, strokes and heart failure. Diabetes is also a very serious illness.
Metabolic Syndrome (sometimes called prediabetes) may be even worse because people don’t recognize that they have this illness so it goes untreated till it’s too late to reverse the ravages of this disease. Obesity is one of the biggest contributors to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. We continue to sound the alarm that chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes are prevalent in the Virgin Islands community and studies have shown that this can be attributed to our eating habits -- loads of starches -- and sedentary lifestyle.
We all have to take responsibilities for our own health and be proactive in trying to prevent disease when possible and to control the risk factors that we can. Thus, beginning today, I encourage everyone to think about how they can implement strategies at work, at home, and during recreation to ensure that they can live a healthier and longer life.
Just as we encourage individuals to take care of their health through exercise, eating habits, taking medications as prescribed and getting regular checkups, we also recognize that a healthier Virgin Islands begins with a strong public health system. At DOH, we are working to ensure that our health care system is robust as we are aware of public health’s essential role in the lives of individuals and the reason we hosted and will continue to host free events such as the health walk/health fair held at Emancipation Garden. During the five-hour event, held on Wednesday, April 4, our loyal employees saw over 100 individuals who were screened for glucose, cholesterol and high blood pressure. At least four people were referred for emergency care because of high glucose and BP. They and others were also referred to DOH programs such as DOH’s Diabetes Control and Prevention Program and Bureau of Health Insurance and Medicaid Assistance, known commonly as MAP. We learned that many were either uninsured and thus did not go for regular check ups, while others stopped taking medications because they felt fine. It is not fine, however. Imagine what another hour or another day could have meant for these individuals and their families had the Department of Health not intervene?
DOH recognizes that this is a very difficult time for residents of the territory, given these financially trying times, and stands ready to carry out its mission: To Reduce Health Risks, Increase Access to Quality Health Care, and Enforce Health Standards. In addition to MAP and Diabetes Control and Prevention, DOH provides an array of services and clinics including but not limited to, STD/HIV/TB, Family Planning, Immunization, Emergency Medical Services and Mental Health at the Charles Harwood Complex on St. Croix, the Morris F. De Castro Clinic on St. John and the Community Clinic at Roy L. Schneider Hospital and John S. Moorhead. Programs benefitting men, women and children are offered at eight other locations in the St. Thomas district. DOH also provides medical transport for Schneider Regional Medical Center patients from Myrah Keating Community Health Center on St. John to Roy Lester Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas. The central government, via DOH, also helps to financially support the Federally Qualified Health Clinics.
DOH is also responsible for many of the other facets of healthcare services in the Virgin Islands. Since its split from the territory’s hospitals 18 years ago by a legislative Act, DOH has continued to absorb many financial burdens to support the delivery of healthcare in the territory. For example, DOH staffs and manages risk management by providing malpractice coverage for healthcare providers to include arbitration, legal fees and payment of settlements and lawsuits for both doctors and the territory’s hospitals; staffing and supporting all medical/healthcare-related boards, managing MAP, and staffing the clinics and paying some physician salaries to attract physicians to the territory.
Finally, DOH, as with all executive branch departments and agencies, now, more than ever, is doing more with less. We pledge to work to fulfil our mandate, but it will take all of us, individual residents, DOH, hospitals, community healthcare providers, individual providers, the central government and the Legislature working together to be able to provide for the health of everyone in the territory.
Editor’s note: Mercedes K.C. Dullum, M.D., is the Commissioner of Health, V.I. Department of Health.