Pan American Health Organization


  • Overall Context
  • Leading Health Challenges
  • Health Situation and Trends
  • Prospects
  • References
  • Full Article
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Overall Context

Flag of the BahamasThe Commonwealth of the Bahamas is an archipelago of 700 islands and 2,400 cays in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Florida, that covers an area of 13,900 km2. The climate is typically tropical with two seasons, dry from November to April, and rainy from May to October. Hurricane season lasts officially from June 1 to November 30. In October 2015, Hurricane Joaquin, a Category 4 hurricane, battered the southern islands and in October 2016, another Category 4 hurricane, Matthew, caused much flooding and damage but no fatalities ().

The islands have creeks and bodies of brackish water but no fresh water rivers; water is obtained mainly from wells drilled into aquifers or through desalination. About 30 of the islands are inhabited; the population is estimated at 370,000 persons, 90% of whom live in New Providence, Grand Bahama, and Abaco. The seat of government is in the capital, Nassau, located in New Providence ().

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas gained its independence from Great Britain in 1973. Since then, the country has maintained a Westminster form of democracy. A Governor-General is appointed as the representative of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The country is governed by a bicameral Parliament consisting of a Senate of 14 appointed members and a House of Assembly of 38 members popularly elected every five years.

The population has grown from an estimated 325,200 in 2005 to 369,670 in 2015, representing a 15% increase in the past decade. Much of that growth is due to immigration. Birth rates have decreased from 17.1 per 1,000 live births in 2010 to 16.7 in 2015. The non-Bahamian population in 2010 comprised one-sixth of the total population, a 25% increase from 2000; Haitians comprised 64.4% of the non-Bahamian population (). Not only is the population growing, but its structure is changing (Figure 1). Increasing life expectancy (from 73.8 years in 2010 to 74.7 in 2015) and decreasing birth rates have resulted in an aging population, where the age group 65 years old and older has increased by 25%, while the group 45 64 years old has increased by 32%. Those changes, coupled with a decrease in the population under 15 years old (from 26.6% to 25.3%), have reduced the dependency ratio from 0.48 to 0.45.

Figure 1. Population structure, by age and sex, Bahamas, 1990 and 2015

The population increased 51.4% between 1990 and 2015. In 1990, the population had an expansive structure, especially in ages older than 30 years, and a slower expansion in younger age groups. By 2015, the pyramidal structure had shifted to ages older than 50 years, becoming more stationary under that age and even with a reduction in groups younger than 15 years of age. These changes were the result of a greater decrease in the birth rate and mortality in the last decades.

Source: Pan American Health Organization, based on data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Population Division. New York; 2015.

Despite increases in the labor force, unemployment rates remain quite high (12% 16% nationally), especially among youth (as high as 30%). The per capita annual income also is relatively high (US$ 21,570), as is the per capita gross domestic product (US$ 25,100), generated mainly through tourism (60%) and financial services (15%) to a lesser degree (). These seemingly good indicators notwithstanding, one in eight (12.8%) residents lived below the poverty line in 2013, up from 9.3% in 2001, with evidence of a widening income gap (). Poverty levels were higher among Family Islanders (one in six), among youth (20 29-year-olds accounted for nearly one-quarter of the poor), and among Haitian migrants, whose poverty levels were three times those of the national level. Migrants (mostly non-Haitian) can also be among the wealthier residents in the country, attracted to the Bahamas by its “tax haven” offers.

Informal shantytowns inhabited by mostly poor migrants have proliferated in certain areas. For the Bahamas, which mainly depends on a system of wells and cisterns that are easily contaminated by septic tanks and saltwater intrusion, these settlements are a matter of concern. Wells in shantytowns tend to be poorly constructed and are dug close to improper sewage systems, thus heightening the risk (). Outside privies that serve many of these households, are often poorly constructed and not according to code. It is noteworthy that 93% of water samples from these areas failed laboratory tests and 79% were found to have fecal coliforms. Poor solid waste disposal leads to infestation of rodents and other vermin. According to the government’s 2008 2012 Socio-Economic Report, 1.6% of the population lived in overcrowded housing, 5% used shared toilet facilities, 3.2% used pit latrines, and 0.2% had no access to any toilet facilities ().

Initiatives to mitigate inequity, poverty, and unemployment include the INSPIRE and RISE programs, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. The first, aimed at improving the quality of teaching and learning opportunities, intends to provide youth with skills to better their chances of gaining employment.

The Health System

In 2013/2014, 7.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) was spent on health care; only 46% corresponded to public expenditures, with 29% being spent by households (). In 2010/2011, 12.7% of the government’s budget was allocated to health ().

Since the start of the millennium, the introduction of a national health insurance system has been on the country’s political agenda. According to the 2010 census, 47.2% of the general population has health insurance. In New Providence, approximately 49% of the population was medically insured. Females were slightly more likely to have health insurance (47%) than males (45%) (). The National Health Insurance (NHI) Act, approved by parliament in August 2016, foresees a package of primary care benefits. Covered benefits would be free of charge at the point of service delivery for all Bahamians and most legal residents voluntarily enrolled in the system. Subsequent implementation stages expect to provide coverage for catastrophic conditions and secondary and tertiary care. The country’s planned model of care consists of a multi-payer system that involves a public insurer under private administration. The primary care package includes medical services, medications, and imaging and laboratory services.

Public primary health care services in the Bahamas are delivered through a network of public facilities (28 health centers, 33 main clinics, and 35 satellite clinics) located on the main inhabited islands. Secondary and tertiary care are provided in three public hospitals: the Princess Margaret Hospital (400 beds) and the Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre on New Providence, and the Rand Memorial Hospital (85 beds) on Grand Bahama. Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre is the main national provider of psychiatric, geriatric, and substance abuse services.

Private health care facilities include two private hospitals, the Doctors Hospital and the Lyford Cay Medical Facility, both in New Providence, and the specialized Okyanos Stem Cell Therapy Centre in Grand Bahamas. There also are walk-in clinics, private practitioners, and private medical offices.

Leading Health Challenges

Critical Health Problems


The Bahamas is highly dependent on imported food more than 90.0% of food is imported; in fact, the agriculture sector contributes less than 2% of GDP. This leads to a high cost of food, which, in turn, may be a factor in the poor choice of foods. Foods higher in sugar, salt, and trans fat are less expensive. The government has issued the “Rebuilding Bahamian Agriculture: A 20-year Plan” strategy () in an attempt to boost local production of food. The Ministry of Agriculture, Marine Resources and Local Government has launched an island-specific program to promote growth in agriculture and fisheries. In addition, the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) has a program in North Andros and selected Family Islands that provides training to operate an agro-processing and food manufacturing enterprise.

An Unhealthy Lifestyle

With a limited public transportation infrastructure, the Bahamas lacks enough sidewalks, cycling routes (protected or unprotected), and open recreational public areas to encourage its residents to engage in physical activity. To address this, the government has developed the “Healthy Bahamas 2030” strategy as well as the Healthy Bahamas Coalition (). These two initiatives target risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as reducing tobacco and alcohol consumption, increasing physical activity, promoting healthy nutrition, protecting psychological and emotional well-being, promoting reproductive and sexual health, reducing environmental harms, and making roads and their surroundings safer, which underscores the government’s concern about the growing rates of such diseases.

Chronic Conditions

Six chronic NCDs neoplasms, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, chronic lower respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and hypertension have accounted for nearly half (49%) of all deaths since 2009, as well as for 43% of all potential years of life lost (PYLL). In 2014, all NCDs accounted for 72% of deaths. Neoplasms were the greatest contributor, responsible for 18.5% of all deaths, with the average age of death being 61 years (accounting for 11.2% of PYLL) (Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1. Crude mortality rate, proportional mortality ratio, and Potential Years of Life Lost for the leading causes of death, Bahamas, 2008 2011

Condition Crude mortality rate Proportional mortality ratio PYLL (average) Contribution to total PYLL (%)
Neoplasms 106.8 18.5 9.1 11.2
Hypertension 53.7 9.4 6.0 3.7
Ischemic heart disease 46.8 8.2 5.6 3.0
Cerebrovascular disease 39.7 6.3 6.7 3.1
Diabetes 28.3 5.0 6.7 2.2
Injury and violence 66.0 11.6 33.5 25.4

Source: The Bahamas, Department of Statistics, registry of deaths.

Table 2. Ratio of health professionals per 10,000 population, Bahamas, 2010 2014

  2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Health resource category No. Rate No. Rate No. Rate No. Rate No. Rate
Physicians 830 23.4 901 24.9
Dentists 81 2.3 79 2.2 81 2.3 84 2.3 85 2.3
Registered nurses 964 27.2 1,045 28.8
Trained clinical nurses 451 12.7 413 11.4
Pharmacists 174 5.0 175 4.9 180 5.0 202 5.6 183 5.0
Nutritionists and dietitians 11 0.3 11 0.3 9 0.2 8 0.2 9 0.3
Radiographers 53 1.5 52 1.5 57 1.6 54 1.5 61 1.7
Medical lab. technologists 96 2.7 103 2.9 99 2.8 90 2.5 81 2.2

Source: The Bahamas, Ministry of Health.

Deaths due to neoplasms increased from a crude mortality rate of 104.9 per 100,000 population in 2008 to 108.0 in 2013. From 2009 to 2013, cancers of the digestive organs accounted for nearly one-quarter (24.9%) of all cancer deaths, followed by breast cancer (15.2%). Cases, as detected by the cancer registry based at the Princess Margaret Hospital, also increased, from 357 in 2008 to 400 in 2010 and 427 in 2014. Among cases of cancer, breast (26.2%), prostate (17.9%), and colorectal (11.5%) cancers were the most common. Cancers of the female reproductive organs accounted for another 11.7% of all cancers. Breast cancer cases increased 30% from 2010 to 2014, while colon cancers increased 34% and cancers of the female reproductive organs by 24%; prostate cancer cases showed a slight but steady decrease.

Between 2009 and 2013, ischemic heart disease accounted for 8.7% of all deaths and 3.7% of all PYLL, with an average PYLL of 6.3 years per death. Hypertension accounted for 9.1% of all deaths and 3.5% of all PYLL, with an average PYLL of 5.8 years. Cerebrovascular disease accounted for another 6.9% of all deaths and 3.1% of PYLL, with an average of 6.7 years lost per death. Self-reported prevalence of clinical hypertension appeared to increase from 9.3% in 2001, to 22.9% as reported in the 2005 STEPS risk factor survey, to 34.3% in 2012 (). Altogether, cardiovascular disease, namely hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, and ischemic heart disease, accounted for approximately one-quarter (24.7%) of all deaths during 2009 2013.

Except for 2009 when the rate was 36.5 per 100,000 population, diabetes crude mortality rates varied between 24 and 30 deaths per 100,000 population, accounting for 5.1% of all deaths in 2009 2013. However, deaths occurred at earlier ages, as average PYLL per death increased from 6.3 years in 2009 to 8.8 years in 2013. Self-reported prevalence was 3.3% in 2001 and 9.2% in 2005, but estimated at 23.9% in the 2012 STEPS risk factor survey (12. The proportion of diabetes clinic visits in the public sector decreased from 7.2% in 2008 to 5.5% in 2014.

Mortality due to chronic lower respiratory disorders was low, accounting for less than 1% of all deaths, with crude mortality rates decreasing from 6.4 deaths per 100,000 population in 2009 to 3.3 in 2013.

Human Resources

In 2008, the ratios of health personnel in the Bahamas were 28 physicians per 10,000 population, 27 registered nurses per 10,000, and 14 clinical nurses per 10,000. Tables 1 and 2 show human resource information for 2010 and 2014. This figure has now decreased to 25 and 11.4 for physicians and clinical nurses in 2013, but remained the same for registered nurses. However, the ratio of medical laboratory technologists has been steadily decreasing, from 3.9 per 10,000 population in 2005 to 2.2 in 2014.

Assessments of the human resources for health have concluded that there is a shortage of health professionals in the public health clinics, in the Family Islands, and in some allied health professions. The main deficiencies seem to be in the distribution, skills mix, and human resource management practices.

Health Knowledge, Technology, and Information

The provision of health care services to a relatively small population scattered over a large discontinuous area is an enormous challenge. Telemedicine and other communication technologies for health are particularly important in this context. Laboratory point-of-care testing technologies are being implemented in the Family Islands as another measure to cope with the challenge.

The Bahamas is in the process of developing an integrated health information system, called the integrated Health Information Management Systems (iHIMS). This single system will bring together information from all public health facilities, including hospitals and ambulatory centers, as well as from other health information resources.

The establishment of a health research council responsible for encouraging and coordinating health research has been proposed, which will be especially useful as the country funds the National Health Insurance system and strengthens its health system. To this end, the Health Improvement/Innovation Incubator (HEALinc©) has been conducting health research in collaboration with the Ministry of Health’s Department of Public Health and Public Hospitals Authority, and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) (). Other research activities include forays into stem cell research with international partners and various research efforts by The University of the West Indies residency, nursing, and clinical medicine programs.

The Environment and Human Security

Dependent as it is on the surrounding ocean for food, transportation, and recreation, the Bahamas is extremely vulnerable to environmental shifts. The consequences of climate change, such as rising water tables and sea levels, and increased storm activity, would adversely affect the country’s environment and directly and indirectly affect health. A mere 1 m rise in sea level could eliminate 80% of the country’s landmass.

Given its susceptibility to storms and hurricanes, the Bahamas has improved its capacity to mitigate injury and death by strengthening building codes and enhancing emergency preparedness and response. In 2013, the Government of the Bahamas, along with eight other territories, signed the Caribbean Challenge Initiative Leaders Declaration, designed to accelerate and expand efforts to safeguard the region’s marine and coastal environment, by protecting and sustainably managing 20% of the Caribbean’s marine and coastal ecosystems by 2020 ().

The Bahamas also has committed itself to the Montreal and Kyoto protocols governing harmful emissions. Burning of waste at landfills and dumpsites continues to harm air quality and may contribute to respiratory disorders. The government is exploring partnerships with the private sector to establish a recycling facility and improve the management of landfills.

The cutting down of native trees for fuel, especially in the shantytowns, results in air pollution and deforestation. The Forestry Act of 2010, and its 2014 amendment, seeks to strengthen forest management and conservation (). The introduction of the Environmental Planning and Protection Bill in 2015 established a Department and Advisory Council dedicated to addressing these issues.

Injuries and violence are responsible for an estimated one-quarter of all PYLL in the Bahamas, and for an average loss of 35.5 years of life for each injury death during 2009-2013. During that period, deaths due to injury steadily increased, accounting for 12.5% of all deaths in 2013, an increase due mainly to homicides which made up approximately half of all fatal injuries (125 of 257). The rates for transport injuries have remained stable, but homicide rates increased from slightly more than 25 deaths per 100,000 population in 2009 to slightly more than 30 deaths in 2013. The 250 300 injury deaths each year, with an average of injury by 34 years of age, especially among males, represents a loss of productivity that the nation can ill afford. The government has launched the Project Safe Bahamas to fight crime and reduce violence. These initiatives have been supported by activities such as the development of a National Strategic Plan to Address Gender-based Violence and the National Anti-Drug Strategy 2012 2016.


At least for the next decade, the Bahamas will continue to confront the alarming incidence of risk factors for chronic disease in its population. Increasing rates of overweight/obesity, unhealthy eating, and sedentary lifestyle are of particular concern. Overweight and obesity start early in life in the Bahamas, affecting children and adolescent in high numbers. Moreover, chronic NCDs are being detected at ever-earlier stages in life, when they can exert a stronger long-term impact on the health of future generations of adults. Increasing violence and gang-related incidents among vulnerable youth also pose challenges at early stages of life.

To address these and other problems, the Government of the Bahamas is developing its National Development Plan: “Vision 2040,” a road map for policy development, decision-making, and investment over the next 25 years. The initiative’s four pillars are the economy, governance, social policy, and the environment (). A second initiative, the National Health System Strategic Plan 2010-2020, promotes the empowerment of individuals and communities for optimal health, longevity, and quality of life.. It is critical for these initiatives to involve communities, rather than being solely driven by the government, because few gains will be made unless a broad base of community groups and individuals are fully engaged in the conception and execution of these plans.

The importance of population health, following a “Health for All” approach, must be further emphasized within the National Development Plan. The government, in turn, must seek intersectoral integration and coordination that extends beyond the health care sector to include broad societal actors

The Bahamas is a country with paradoxically high levels of wealth and high levels of poverty, combined with marginalization of important groups of society, especially the growing migrant population. One of the critical debts in social development that the public sector owes the people of the Bahamas has been the lack of universal health coverage. After years of debate and negotiations, the National Health Insurance (NHI) Act was finally approved in 2016 (details of this legislation have been given earlier in this report). The legislation still needs to address sources of additional funding, the role of private insurers, the pooling of risk and resources, beneficiary participation (voluntary), provider engagement, and the level of coverage in subsequent stages.

Furthermore, universal health must not stop at universal coverage, but should guarantee access to appropriate and high-quality care. The country’s national health authorities are working toward strengthening the health system to complement National Health Insurance in the effort to achieve universal health.


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1. The poverty line has been set at US$ 4,247 per person per year.

2. The Family Islands, also known as the Out Islands, include: The Abacos, Acklins, Andros, The Berry Islands, Bimini, Cat Island, Crooked Island, Eleuthera, The Exumas, Harbour Island, Long Island, and San Salvador.

3. RISE (Renewing, Inspiring, Sustaining, Empowering) is a conditional cash transfer program that targets poverty, especially among children and pregnant women.

4. Other information resources include the Information and Communication Technology Strengthening Initiative that has covered laboratory and pharmacy services since 2006, and the Perioperative Information System implemented at Princess Margaret and Rand Memorial Hospitals.

5. Having five or more pregnancies is considered multiparity in a woman.

6. The minimum level recommended by PAHO to maintain herd immunity.

7. Covered diseases are: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, Haemophilus influenzae, and hepatitis B.

8. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 16 weeks of life is considered a good start to a lifetime of healthy nutrition and has been shown to be protective against obesity and chronic diseases.

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