April 1, 2023

After Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Puerto Rico’s public health care system was flooded with people in need.

Now, Hurricane Fiona It is expected to exacerbate the health care crisis on the island. About half of the island’s population relies on the public healthcare system. Local officials say the federal funding gap has led to staff shortages and long wait times for patients.

Hurricane Maria exposed a system that has deteriorated, experts say.

“If you ask all the players, patients, providers and administrators in the healthcare system, they’ll all agree…Maria is just showing you what’s going on, but before that, the system breaks down,” Nelson said. Nelson Varas-Diaz, a researcher at Florida International University who oversaw research evaluating the island’s health care situation, said.

Varas-Diaz pointed to debt as a reason for the collapse.

“The collapse was largely caused by the debt and economic crisis in Puerto Rico and the historic privatization of the health care system there. Our research shows that patients wait six to eight months for an appointment with a specialist. If this is not a sign of a collapse, I don’t Know what,” Varas-Diaz said.

Dr. Edgar Domenech Fagundo is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Ponce, Puerto Rico, who saw 30 patients a day when he started his practice in 1999. More than two decades later, that number has roughly doubled.

“Every time I’m in the office, I see an average of 50 to 60 patients a day,” Fagundo said.

He has a very busy schedule and won’t see any new patients until March 2023. Delays could have life-threatening effects on people, he said.

“The longer people wait, the longer their diagnosis is delayed. So with diseases like cancer and other diseases, you want to treat them early so the patient has a better chance of being cured,” Fagondo said.

Dr. Carlos Merado, who became Puerto Rico’s health minister a year ago, said Puerto Rico has only 17 neurosurgeons — serving a population of 3.2 million.

Nicole Damiani’s husband, Carlos Rivera, was hospitalized earlier this month after falling to the ground and having a seizure. He had to wait eight days to see a neurosurgeon. Carlos had bleeding and swelling in his brain.

“It’s really hard to find a neurosurgeon here in Puerto Rico. And it got to the point where I really gave up on my life,” he said.

One of the reasons Carlos is having a hard time finding medical care is that many Puerto Rican doctors are moving to Florida, where salaries are much better.

Registered nurse Gielliam Elias has been a nurse at Centro Médico de Puerto Rico for 19 years and rides her son’s bike to work because she can’t afford a car. She said her biweekly checks were about $891, which was not enough to keep her family afloat.

Even those new to the field expressed concern for the future of healthcare in Puerto Rico.

“We watch what’s going on around us, what the doctors tell us, our own professors, family members who may be practicing medicine. We keep hearing about the issues facing the island. In just three years, we may have to make a decision we’re staying. Or the decisive decision to leave, which is not entirely under our control,” said second-year medical student Carlo Bosque.

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