The Caribbean continues to hold pride of place as a tropical paradise for the pursuit of an enjoyable lifestyle and good health. George Washington was privy to this knowledge when he visited the island at age 19 with his half-brother Lawrence, hoping that the salutary climate would benefit his sibling who was then ill with tuberculosis. George developed smallpox, which fortunately for the rebelling colonists a few years later, might have altered the course of American history, given the resulting immunity, which he developed.
One of the attractions of living in Barbados is its good health care system, ranked among the best in the Caribbean. While there are challenges of gaining access to some highly specialized clinical and rehabilitative services, the core services are quite well developed. Given the fact that our society is highly westernized in its acculturation, the chronic non-communicable diseases are the major causes of ill-health in the adult population, similar to patterns evident in North America and Europe. As such, there has been a well developed cardiac surgical program in place for well over a decade at the principal tertiary institution, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH). Access to acute care has significantly expanded, particularly in the private sector, with care provided by highly trained emergency physicians at the FMH Emergency Clinic in Bridgetown and the Sandy Crest Clinic, Holetown, St. James. We have also witnessed increased provision of private laboratory and radiological services in recent years. Healthcare is available to all Barbadians either publicly through a network of polyclinics around the island, which provide primary and some secondary care, while the QEH provides tertiary care.
This 600-bed institution is located in Bridgetown and provides a wide range of ambulatory services and acute care, including intensive care services. The institution is staffed by a highly trained cadre of physicians and surgeons, with access to equipment. Sophisticated surgical services include open-heart surgery, neurosurgery, joint replacements, and scoliosis correction. The Bay View Hospital, located a half-mile away, also provides inpatient care, with a high throughput of obstetric patients.
There is also a well-developed private healthcare infrastructure, for those who choose to pay for services, with doctors scattered throughout the island. There is also a well-organized drug benefit service, which provides free drugs for the major chronic diseases and for all persons aged 65 years and older, or under age 16. Many specialists practise in the Belleville area, located a mere stone’s throw away from the hospital, and many general practice clinics have sprung up with the conurbations that continue to arise across the island. Health care is therefore available for all and provided by highly competent doctors.
Much of the progress in medicine on the island has been underpinned by the Faculty of Medical Sciences, the University of the West Indies (UWI), which has been training highly skilled medical graduates for more than 45 years. Graduates continue to distinguish themselves locally, regionally, and internationally, and the UWI lays special emphasis on expertise in clinical skills. Chances are, should you encounter a senior physician with a Bajan accent working in North America, he or she is most likely a graduate of the UWI.
The Faculty of Medical Sciences began its distinguished history in 1948 as the principal institution for medical education in the Commonwealth Caribbean, sited at the Mona Campus, Kingston, Jamaica. Founded as the University College of the West Indies, the faculty was conceived as a College of the University of London, until it was granted its regional charter in 1962. Today, the UWI has the unique status of being a truly international university, serving as the principal tertiary education institution for the Caribbean (CARICOM) countries, while hosting a growing number of international students.
The UWI has committed to expanding its training programme with the development of a state-of-the-art Medical Faculty in Barbados, to meet future national training needs. A brand new expanded Faculty of Medical Sciences opened in September 2008, due largely to the efforts of former Dean, Professor Henry Fraser. There was a significant expansion of academic staff coupled with the growth in the undergraduate student body. This expanded faculty has been an essential investment in the development of the country, where it has long been recognized that health is a developmental issue. The Heads of Government of the Caribbean declared in the Nassau Declaration (2001), that the health of the Region is the wealth of the Region.
The Faculty has also made its mark on medical research globally through international collaboration. A long term effort, the Barbados Eye Studies, led by Distinguished Professor of Preventive Medicine and Ophthalmology at Stony Brook University, Cristina Leske, provided seminal information about open-angle glaucoma in Barbados which has had worldwide ramifications and informed public health policy regarding eye care in African Americans. More recently, a collaboration led by Professor Zhang unearthed a novel glaucoma gene in Barbadians. Medical research in Barbados has largely been carried out at the Chronic Disease Research Centre of the UWI. This department has contributed to our understanding of factors underlying risk for diabetes-related amputation and outcomes, occurrence and impact of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and vascular mechanisms affecting wound healing in persons with diabetes and collaborate with groups at Stony Brook University, Johns Hopkins University, Oxford, and the National Human Genome Research Institute, among others. The UWI has recognized the critical importance of research and development in education and works assiduously to enhance its programmes and expertise in medical research.
In sum, there is a well-developed health care infrastructure in Barbados, serviced by highly competent doctors, able to provide affordable high-quality care, with strong support services, in the most attractive tropical environment. Health tourism is therefore a major potential investment opportunity, with the capacity to capitalize on the experience of George Washington’s brother so many centuries ago, especially for those in the USA, Canada, and Europe.