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Preach and practise

I recently attended a public lecture at the QEH titled, “The cost of public healthcare in Barbados” with a focus on the effects of chronic non-communicable diseases of hypertension and diabetes.

The speakers were Dr. Dexter James, CEO of the QEH, as well as a doctor from the US whose focus is on the cost of diabetes and stroke on the US economy. During the presentation, Dr. James informed the audience that over 60 per cent of the QEH’s budget was spent on non-communicable disease and that every year a bit more was being spent as a larger portion of the population was presenting with these illnesses.

He preached of the importance of personal responsibility and how individuals ought to take a greater interest in the type of foods they ate and ensure that they got enough exercise in weekly. He even recounting the story of a doctor who works in the kidney centre of the hospital who was feeling frustrated at the fact that his patient whom he has been seeing for a while now is not showing any improvements and the deteriorating as high sugar levels, high cholesterol, elevated levels of blood pressure etc. This is evidence that in his mind he knows that we have the makings of a health epidemic.

Recently I saw a photo posted on a popular social networking site of a vending machine recently installed in the QEH. In fact, it was a mere three days after attending the said lecture when I saw the photo. How hypocritical can we get in this country?

Now, I’m pretty sure it was not so long ago (about two years if my memory serves me right) that the CEO of the hospital said words to the effect that unhealthy snacks will be banned from the hospital. In fact, here is an excerpt of that same speech from the Barbados Advocate, dated July 21, 2010.

“Our board has recently taken a decision, that as of the 31st of July, all of the concessionaires who provide services at the hospital, must change over all their (vending) machines with healthy snacks, or else we don’t want it.

“So we have taken a stance to contribute to this issue (of unhealthy lifestyle practices), because we’ve found for instance, the diabetic who doesn’t manage himself or herself well would actually leave the ward, come downstairs, go to the machine and get these unhealthy snacks.

“So we have had to take a conscious decision … because we feel that as a health institution, we have a responsibility to also practise what we preach. I know that decision might be unpopular to some of the concessionaires, but sometimes it is not only about income …, so we feel that would give them the opportunity to now move into providing healthy snacks, and that’s the direction in which we will go,” James revealed.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the types of drinks in this machine. Included is a photo of said vending machine but here’s a list of the drinks in case they aren’t easily identified. Coke Zero, Sprite Zero, Frutee Ginger Ale, Frutee Clear, Maxi Malta, Powerade, Cranwater. Among several of these drinks there is over 30g of sugar per container.

Of course, the serving size per container is usually two but no one is going to drink half a bottle of Coke — the entire thing must be drunk! Aside from the exorbitant amount of sugar in these drinks, let’s not talk about the number of artificial ingredients listed as well, including: caramel colour, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, potassium citrate, acesulfame potassium, caffeine.

It reads like a chemistry set for making rat poison or something, not food to be ingested. But we can’t really call this food. But I guess that these are “healthy” snacks since some are preceded or followed by the words zero, clear, light and less.

Maybe to Dr. James these drinks are quite “healthy” and as long as they are consumed in moderation they are fine to drink. But we all know that very few Barbadians actually read nutritional labels, they just consume. Moreover, they are seemingly unaware of portion control and serving sizes.

Dr. James admitted at the lecture that we are unable to calculate the exact annual cost (direct, indirect and emotional costs) of treating NCDs in this country. He, however, did admit that there is a cost, a fairly high one at that and it increases yearly. So it really is beyond me why these “healthy” snacks are back in our leading healthcare facility.

I’ve heard rumours that similar vending machines filled with snacks have also been installed. Their content I am not aware of but wouldn’t be surprised if it is full of the usual fare of chocolate, chips, corn curls and sweet biscuits and cookies?

Pray tell Mr. CEO, if we can’t at least try to provide our health care personnel, the ones who advise the wider public on how to either maintain or improve their health, with better, healthier choices what hope is there for the rest of the population.

Seventy per cent of Barbadian women are either overweight or obese. All I can say is that I’m truly disappointed. Eloquent words, but in this case actions speak volumes. Every year more Barbadians succumb or are affected in some way by these NCDs. Those in authority claim they try to combat the rise but really do very little. Having a walkathon or health fair once or twice a year does nothing. We all know this but hide our heads in the sand like flamingos.

Tackle the issue now, at the root, mainly being our appalling eating habits and lack of physical activity. Serious and meaningful solutions will only be taken when the cost of providing health care becomes such a financial burden on the public coffers that with no money left the only care patients will get at the QEH is a band aid and a lollipop to cheer them up as these diseases slowly take over their bodies. I’m sorry to say I can see that day fast approaching.

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