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Latin America Healthcare Burdens & Opportunities

Latest developments

From the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, a few months ago to, the thawing of ties between the United States and Cuba; over the last half century Latin America has witnessed a number of significant social, economic and political changes. With aspirations of stability and development throughout the region, many of the countries in Latin America are driving towards cementing their transition to democracies and are listening to their populations that are standing up in the name of social and civil rights. Although there are still plenty of structural and infrastructural weaknesses in the region, the discussion on the healthcare systems and the healthcare burdens that this region is facing has been receiving more attention on both the political and social stage. The region is currently grappling with three major healthcare burdens, however with these burdens there are a number of opportunities for healthcare providers.


Problems of an ageing population

Latin America’s population is ageing rapidly as the region reaches the peak of a demographic transition. Once regarded as the home of the eternally young, Latin America’s rise in life expectancy and fall in birth rates is changing the landscape of cities and towns across the region. As with anywhere else in the world, an ageing population puts added strain on healthcare expenditures and also increases the number of chronic and degenerative illnesses. In 2010, 10% of the Latin America’s population was over 60 years old and it is predicted that by 2040, this number is expected to more than double, reaching 21%. Whilst public health institutions in Latin America can no longer able carry the burden of caring for the elderly there is a desperate need for public policies in the region to consider the new reality of families needing additional support to care for their ageing relatives. Countries in Latin America only need to look at the example of the Japanese healthcare system which has been thrown into a crisis due to the burden of an ageing population. Although public health institutions cannot cope with Latin America’s ageing population alternative solutions exist including home healthcare opportunities. This is especially true for care providers, nursing homes, and medical equipment suppliers that can provide products to meet the needs of this changing demographic at a reasonable cost.


Rise in chronic diseases

Whilst infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria have decreased significant to account for less than 10% of deaths in the region, chronic diseases are now on the increase. This is especially true in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay where chronic diseases are the principal causes of death. Although these countries are considered to be in the advanced stages of their epidemiological transition, many of their neighbours are expected to follow the same path. This in turn will further increase the burden of chronic diseases throughout the region. Along with an ageing population, chronic diseases place a huge strain on healthcare resources as a result of the frequent and often sophisticated treatments that they require. A greater emphasis therefore needs to be placed on the prevention of chronic diseases especially, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases which are rising in prevalence. In order to ease the burden of chronic diseases on Latin America’s healthcare systems there needs to be a greater emphasis placed on raising awareness of the prevention of chronic diseases. As the number of people suffering from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases is increasing in Latin America, medical device manufacturers have the opportunity to pioneer the shift towards legitimising preventative care in the region.


Latin America’s expanding waistline

More than 56% of adults in Latin America are considered to suffer from obesity, which is well above the global average of 34%. Despite having rich culinary traditions dating back thousands of years to the indigenous populations of the region, Latin Americans are now turning their stomachs north as they feast on North American, westernised junk food. The situation in Latin America is worsening with Mexicans drinking more fizzy drinks than any other nation in the world; Peru having the highest density of fast food restaurants in the world and, Chile exporting the largest amount of fruit in the world due to the lack of demand. This has turned Latin America into one of the most obese regions in the developing world. With the rise of obesity in Latin America, there has been an increase in the number of obesity related chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Latin America also faces a unique double burden whereby malnutrition due to low incomes and food insecurities exists alongside obesity. Although this is one of the most widespread burdens facing Latin America, it is one that can be most easily managed. Latin Americans need to be informed about eating healthily and how they can move towards breaking free from obesity. There are therefore opportunities to introduce diagnostic and monitoring technology that can determine a patient’s progress as well as raising awareness of the gradual nature of weight gain and obesity.