Bernardo M. Villegas
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Taking Care of Women OFWs

          The Philippines recently received another accolade in a forum held in Chile on the 2019 APEC Healthy Women, Healthy Economies Research Prize.  One of the country’s top researchers on the country’s leading engine of growth, the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) sector, Dr. Veronica Ramirez of the University of Asia and the Pacific, obtained First Place for her research publication entitled “Common Health Problems of Women OFWs:  Implications to Prevention and Health Services.”  Dr. Ramirez will have the honor to present her paper to the CEO and APEC Leaders’ Summit to be held in Chile on November 14 to 16, 2019.  Her paper will highlight the fact that the Filipino women who make the sacrifice of leaving their families to work abroad are real treasures of Philippine society, contributing to both economic growth and a more equitable distribution of income.  The vast majority of them come from regions outside the National Capital Region.  The paper of Dr. Ramirez bested those of a researcher from Chile that got second place for “Intergenerational Gender Inequality,” and of a Chinese academic who obtained third place for her paper on “Episiotomy and Childbirth.”

         Yes, we call our OFWs national heroes.  But what do we do for them?  Dr. Ramirez is one of those who look for ways so that we as a nation can reward especially the women OFWs for all their sacrifices by being concerned for their total human welfare.  In this particular award-winning paper, Dr. Ramirez focuses on the over-all health of the women OFWs.  Her study investigated the common health problems among land-based women OFWs and their implications for both preventive and curative health services.  Her research yielded the following findings: OFW medical benefit claims with Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and PhilHealth are from the occupational groups of household service Workers, automotive drivers, kitchen crew, and technicians.  The common diseases of women OFWs are related to Reproductive, Urinary/Excretory, Digestive, Endocrine, Cardiovascular, Respiratory and Nervous Systems.  The reproductive health-related problems experienced by the women OFWs are dysmenorrhea, irregular menstrual period and pain during urination.

         The factors that affect their attitude towards health maintenance and treatment are lack of awareness of their benefits, distance between health service centers and their workplace, their fear of losing their job and reliance on self-medication.  The health services generally available to women OFWs are PhilHealth, employer-provided health insurance, private company health insurance, Gulf Approved Medical Centers Association (GAMCA)-member medical health facilities, migrant health facilities in the regions and country specific social security.  The health-related preventive measures and initiatives that can be undertaken for the benefit of women OFWs can include:  a) health awareness programs for common OFW diseases should be incorporated in the PDOs; and b) formulation and implementation of policies that directly respond to health needs of women  such as, for example, the portability of health insurance, wellness program for women OFWs, and designing wellness programs for women by occupational group.  These measures can be implemented overseas through the OWWA and locally through the National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO).

         To help policy makers, business leaders and other OFW stakeholders to identify gender-specific, appropriate health-related interventions, the following recommendations, among others, were made based on the findings of the study:

         -Since the Department of Health (DOH) is the agency primarily concerned with preventing the spread of such illnesses as HIV, TB, STD, Hepatitis and Non-Communicable Diseases and since there is a high number of these medical cases among those who are applying to work overseas, DOH should provide treatment and monitor these cases to prevent them from posing health risks to their own communities and from pursuing employment overseas through illegal means.

         -Since the common health problems of land-based women OFWs have already been identified, the medical information and campaign to promote good health among these OFWs can be strengthened in their countries of work, with the specific body system-related diseases in mind.  Likewise, needed vaccines, such as Hepa B, should be provided to OFWs before deployment.

         -Health services for women OFWs should be increased in countries where these are not fully extended to migrant workers.  APEC migrant receiving countries can forge agreements for health protection to enable women to join, thrive and rise in the workforce, thus contributing to their integral human development.

         -Since the role of public-private programs and initiatives that address these health needs have been ascertained, the Migrant Health Unit of the DOH, together with its accredited clinics for OFWs, need to spearhead and relentless pursue health education and promotion, focusing their effort and resources on the most pressing health problems of women OFWs.  They not only need to hold awareness programs of OFWs as a group but give one-on-one health counselling and/or coaching, coming out with health programs that are appropriate for each OFW’s situation.  They can do this in partnership with other health service providers in the private sector.  Hopefully, these customized health programs of OFWs will continue even if they are already abroad through the use of telemedicine facilities.  In addition, health insurance companies and health maintenance organizations should include in their coverage health education and promotion, health counselling and coaching, and other wellness programs which address more of the disease prevention side rather than just disease management and treatment. 

         -Since the study found that work and living conditions of OFWs cannot fully promote their welfare and wellness, wellness programs for women OFWs can be designed for specific occupational groups.  This can be implemented overseas though the OWWA and locally through the NRCO to respond to their respective health needs.  The Wellness Program design can include:  a) Awareness sessions on disease prevention and health services in the country of work; b) occupational ergonomics; c) occupational safety and health; d) work and leisure balance; e) healthy psycho-social work environment; f) emotional intelligence and anger management; and g) spiritual well-being based on one’s religious beliefs. 

         We should thank award-winning Dr. Veronica Ramirez for coming out with evidence-based recommendations to promote the total well-being or integral human development of the Filipino women OFW who are doing much to help their respective families attain better lives and be real manpower assets for the nation as well as generate the much needed foreign exchange needed to support our indispensable imports as well as the domestic purchasing power that has been a major engine of growth of the Philippine economy for more than a decade.  Without the sacrifices of these women OFWs, the Philippines would not be today one of the fastest growing economies, not only in the East Asian region, but also in the whole world. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.