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Expanding Indigenous Health Care in Guatemala

Health Care in Guatemala
Guatemala is currently experiencing an invisible health care crisis because people have not noticed the harmful effects of the lack of access to primary health care services for decades. Guatemala has a population of 16.91 million, with 60 percent of the population living below the national poverty line and 23 percent of the population living in extreme poverty. Fortunately, there are some nonprofit organizations attempting to improve health care in Guatemala.

Barriers to Indigenous Health Care in Guatemala

Access to health care in Guatemala is heavily reliant on environmental and socioeconomic factors. Indigenous populations, in particular, have the greatest difficulty accessing basic health care services. An estimated 40 percent of the population is indigenous and speaks indigenous languages such as Xincan and K’iche. Most health care providers in Guatemala speak Spanish, posing a communication barrier to administering health services.

Another barrier is that the majority of health care services are located in the capital, Guatemala City, making them geographically unreachable for many indigenous people. In order to receive adequate health care, indigenous people would have to take time off work, pay money out of pocket for transportation and travel many hours to the capital. This is unattainable for families who are already struggling to afford basic daily amenities such as food and clean water.

Cultural barriers also represent another hurdle in terms of health care access for indigenous people in Guatemala. Many indigenous communities have rigid cultural practices regarding health care and they feel that the national health care systems do not respect their traditions. Many would prefer to go to a local traditional healer who uses more holistic methods such as plant-based medicine and spiritual guidance. Sometimes this sort of natural-based health care suffices, but with more serious illnesses, traditional remedies do not always work and patients arrive at hospitals with untreated or advanced, serious illnesses.

Government Funding

According to Guatemala’s constitution, access to health care is a human right, however, lack of funding in rural areas excludes indigenous populations from this fundamental right. The Guatemalan government spends around $97 per person per year on public health care, dramatically less than the United States which spends $7,825. This means many local health care services are understaffed, lack proper supplies and are understocked. This has the greatest impact on indigenous people who cannot afford to go to expensive private hospitals and clinics.

Nonprofits and Foreign Aid Working to Expand Indigenous Health Care in Guatemala

Several groups are working to eliminate these barriers to health care access in Guatemala, particularly among the indigenous populations. The local nonprofit, Mayan Families, aims to provide “world-class care to patients free of charge, including primary care, health education, specialist referrals and all medications.”

The international nonprofit, ActionAid, has many regionally focused programs, specifically in Peten, which is home to many Q’echi people, an indigenous group that makes up about 6 percent of Guatemala‘s entire population. ActionAid worked with many local partners to train translators and hospital staff in Q’echi languages and culture so that hospitals could provide adequate health care to local indigenous populations.

USAID’s Health Finance and Governance (HFG) project aims to help improve health in developing countries and is working to increase access to health care in Guatemala. Experts from HFG conducted an assessment of health care in Guatemala and came up with a plan to help increase health care coverage. Its plan includes funding, increasing supplies and training specialists. This will help increase access to health care for indigenous people as more funding means cheaper health care services.

The lack of access to health care in Guatemala for indigenous people is not an unsolvable issue. An increase in attention to the issue has led to international organizations taking action. A combination of advocacy, donations and political actions can greatly improve the country’s current health care system, and increase the overall health of indigenous people in Guatemala.

– Laura Phillips-Alvarez
Photo: Flickr