Latin America: the underdog of research

 

During my undergraduate studies in Honduras, a professor told me, “Health professionals in hospitals are more useful than researchers because that is where the real demand is.” This sentence stuck with me and left me with a lot of questions… What role do researchers play in my country? And why is the curative approach (illness) given higher priority than the preventive one (health)? Where did this notion originate from, and why is it being replicated and reinforced throughout our healthcare system? As time passed, I realized that not only Honduras, but Latin America as a whole, was dealing with the latter dilemma, and the main reason for this was a lack of research.

The latter holds great promise for the development of a lower-income country. In Latin America, however, it is still poorly recognized due to the region’s weakness and lack of priority in their public policy agendas. The number of scientific articles produced in Latin America is limited, and those that do exist are primarily from a few countries that have recognized the importance of greater investment in this area, among them Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

Research has the potential to help a country evaluate and monitor health indicators, detect the shortcomings of current health-care systems, and examine the effectiveness of implemented projects. When research is not incorporated into a country’s public policies, both the quality of services provided, and the perception of users and service providers suffer. Rafael Radi, a well-known Uruguayan scientist, asserts that there is no scientific culture among Latin American politicians.

Honduras, for instance, currently lacks a regulatory national entity or program that encourages and finances research projects  as a result of only investing 0.00% of their Internal Brute Product (IBP) in research and development. Because disinterest is viewed in poorly equipped laboratories, insufficient research funds, low salaries, and in health institutions that discourage professionals from devoting to research, hundreds of qualified individuals like myself prefer to migrate in search of better opportunities.

Policymakers have argued that funding research is a large investment with no immediate payoff, so they would rather play a passive role and rely on countries that do, without realizing that, despite the fact that the return on investment is not immediate, it does provide income-generating benefits. Latin American policy makers have failed to realize that by not investing in research, it makes it more difficult to improve the region’s health problems, upgrade existing health-care systems, and consequently reduce health inequities.

Research enables us to prevent disease or the rapid progression of disease in an individual or society, as well as to prepare for potential catastrophic health events. Furthermore, through research, proposals or initiatives from civil or international organizations can be assessed for viability and, as a result, the saturation of programs or health services can be reduced by more efficiently distributing resources and expertise. Despite the fact that research provides numerous long-term benefits to a country’s health and development, my professor’s attitude toward researchers continues to be shared not only within my field of health, but also in the general population. These attitudes toward research discourage professionals who are passionate about the field while also stagnating the country’s health system.

It is critical that Latin American policymakers invest in research in order to reduce brain drain while also developing skills that allow for the production of high-quality research that is noticeable globally and can be translated into health policies for the benefit of the region’s population. Otherwise, misconceptions like the one described above will spread even further in Latin America, where countries like Honduras will continue to be portrayed as the development underdog.

 

About the author: Sheryl N. Ruiz holds a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the National Autonomous University of Honduras and is currently enrolled in a master in Public Health at Lund University. Her areas of interest include global health, health policy and equity.

Competing interests: None

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

 

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