Rio Olympics Offers Startling Look at Two Worlds of Health Care

One-year old baby suffering from skin ulcers on face waits
PALMARES, PERNAMBUCO STATE, BRAZIL - 2015/09/29: One-year old baby suffering from skin ulcers on face waits for a consultation in a public hospital in the rural area of Palmares city in Pernambuco State, Brazil. (Photo by Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Photograph by Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images

Planning for the Olympic games stands tall in the pantheon of logistical nightmares. An estimated 480,000 people, tourists along with athletes, are flocking to 2016 host city Rio de Janeiro, clogging roads, hotels — and healthcare systems. For Brazil and Rio, preparations are especially fraught coming in the midst of a deepening economic recession, political crisis, and the epidemic of mosquito-borne Zika virus cases.

So how does a developing country like Brazil deal with so many additional bodies that may potentially require medical attention? It offers two very different classes of care — with citizens receiving what they say is substandard service.

Brazil’s health system is in dire need of improvement, as outlined in this 2014 report from Deloitte. In the country of more than 200 million people, 75% rely solely on its public Unified Health System (SUS), the largest public health system in the world, for free medical care while the rest have private insurance which may also be channeled into the SUS.

SUS services are delivered through a mix of public and private care providers, depending on the kind of procedure which needs to be performed. Brazilians hold the overall system in low regard, according to Deloitte, which notes that 93% called it either “very bad” or “mediocre” in a 2014 government survey. And the situation’s gotten even worse amid a multi-year recession, with just 1.95 doctors available for every 1,000 Brazilian residents in 2015.

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Olympic tourists, however, face a very different healthcare landscape. That’s partly thanks to acting Brazilian president Michel Temer’s 11th-hour $849 million bailout to the state of Rio de Janeiro (which contains the city).

CNN commentator and physician Sanjay Gupta reported on the chasm between medical services for local residents versus athletes and guests. Gupta described an ambulance ride that took a full 25 minutes to reach a homeless, unconscious man and paramedics’ subsequent attempts to treat him on-site in a bid to prevent dropping yet another body into Rio’s overcrowded public hospitals.

And then Gupta saw the private facilities available for other Rio visitors.

When I step into the Americas Medical City Hospital, it’s hard to imagine that I’m in the same country. The chaos of people desperate for care has been replaced with the busy, but quiet, hum of a hospital that I’m used to. It feels like a big city academic hospital back in the United States. […]
This includes the Olympic Village Polyclinic — a mini hospital in the Olympic Village that provides everything from emergency services to dental care — as well as the Americas Medical City facility, which is composed of two hospitals, one that will cater to athletes and the other to Olympic dignitaries and VIPs.
If someone needs to be rushed from the Olympic Village or the Polyclinic to the hospital, it should take approximately 12 minutes.
It’s full-service healthcare that will be run by a staff of 5,000 doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel — many of whom will volunteer to do these jobs.

University of Miami trauma surgeon and Brazilian native Antonio Marttos spent three years traveling between Miami and the facility to make sure it was ready, according to Gupta, to quickly and effectively grapple with any medical emergencies befalling Olympians and other attendees — especially for sports-related accidents like the graphic leg injury suffered by French gymnast Samir Said last weekend.

Some take a rosier view of the disparities and the Olympics’ potential to bridge them. Rio Olympics Chief Medical Officer Dr. João Grangeiro, for one, has asserted that many of the technologies from centers like the Polyclinic could provide big boosts to future care in the region since some of them will be left behind.

“While the Polyclinic itself is not a permanent construction, there are other Legacy gifts that will stay with us and benefit Brazilian patients for many years to come,” he said, according to GE Healthcare, which won a coveted contract for use of its electronic health record platform for the Rio games in March. GE says that the local Souza Aguiar trauma hospital, which sees more than 10 times as many patients in a month than it has beds, will be gifted more than $2 million in new high-tech medical devices like robotic surgical arms, surgery monitors, anesthetic machines, various medical scanners, ultrasound devices, and security software.

“This technology will give Brazilian healthcare some of the most advanced medical capabilities in the world,” said Daurio Speranzini Jr., president of GE Healthcare for Latin America, in May. “In particular, we hope to help the hospital to diminish its waiting line both for diagnostic imaging and for surgery.”

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