Panama City, Panama, 12 April 2015 (PAHO/WHO) — On a historic day at the 7th Summit of the Americas—marked by the first face-to-face encounter in half a century between the presidents of Cuba and the United States—the director of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) met with Panama's minister of health to discuss collaboration toward reforming the Panamanian health system. Health reform is a top priority on the political agenda of Panama's government under President Juan Carlos Varela.

"The Government of Panama has embarked on an ambitious reform in the health sector that focuses on addressing the fragmentation and segmentation of the system and that will increase access to quality and comprehensive health care," said PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. "Increasing the quality of care, particularly at the primary level, requires new orientation and training of health-care workers, including doctors." She added that community involvement and engagement are also key.

During a lengthy discussion, health minister Francisco Javier Terrientes and his advisor, Temistocles Diaz Strunz, explained that the current focus of Panama's health system is on critical and ambulatory care. Most Panamanian adults seek medical assistance only when they are pregnant or have a health emergency. As a result, more than three-fourths of the country's health budget is earmarked for hospital emergencies, at the expense of primary care and prevention. Panama needs to invert this pyramid, the officials said.

"We would like to educate and transform the mindset of the general population to lead healthier lives and to learn how to prevent rather than to treat illness," said Terrientes. "There is a critical need for universal access to health clinics. We know that PAHO is very knowledgeable in this area and can help a great deal to implement these changes."

The discussion that took place yesterday laid the groundwork for expanding technical cooperation and collaboration between PAHO and Panama in this and other areas as well.

"The government is placing a high priority on access to potable water, basic sanitation and other determinants of health," added Etienne. "PAHO can help with the definition and reorganization of services, the evaluation of impact, and the reorientation of health teams."

Terrientes also confirmed that Panama is planning to vaccinate against 23 illnesses that are particularly prevalent on the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts during Vaccination Week in the Americas, just two weeks from now.

PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne with Panama's Health Minister Francisco Javier Terrientes on her left and PAHO's Director of External Relations, Alberto Kleiman. To Dr. Etienne's right Health Minister Advisor, Temistocles Diaz Strunz, the Vice Minister of Health, Miguel A. Mayo, and PAHO's Representative in Panama, Federico Hernandez.PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne is flanked by Panama's Health Minister Francisco Javier Terrientes on her left and PAHO's Director of External Relations, Alberto Kleiman. To Dr. Etienne's right stands Panama's Health Minister Advisor, Temistocles Diaz Strunz, the Vice Minister of Health, Miguel A. Mayo, and PAHO's Representative in Panama, Federico Hernandez.

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Founded in 1902, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.

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