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UK delegation sees firsthand the pros and cons of Cuba’s unique health care system

The UK group visited Cuba as part of a Education Abroad program. (Photo from UKNow)


Derrick Meads and Sarah Geegan
Special to KyForward

A delegation of 20 University of Kentucky students, hospital administrators, faculty and staff recently returned from Cuba, where through an Education Abroad program they explored the country’s unique health care system.

The delegation, led by Peter Berres, retired assistant dean for student affairs in the College of Health Sciences, and Claudia Hopenhayn, associate professor in the College of Public Health, met with a broad range of health care professionals, from family doctors to some of the top medical specialists in the country.

“Cuba was rarely in the media for my generation,” Brigid Cecil, a public health master’s student, said. “But I did know that Cuba’s health care system is known as one of the best in the world, in terms of being cost beneficial.”

The 50-year U.S. embargo has left Cuba with few resources. To be effective, the country has invested in prevention and health promotion at all levels of its health care system.

“For example, in Havana there is a family physician for each four-block area,” Berres said. “The physician cares for entire families — they go to their homes, they live in same communities and they know their patients. The knowledge of families from generation to generation among these physicians is highly valuable for preventative care.”

Unlike many developing countries, Cuba does not have a shortage of physicians. There is a doctor for every 170 residents in Cuba, which is the second highest ratio in the world according to the World Health Organization. The surplus allows Cuban physicians to spend one to two years working in countries that are in dire need of medical care.

In addition to exporting its physicians, Cuba is also helping countries develop their health care infrastructure through the Elam Latin American School of Medicine.

“Elam started out as a humanitarian effort for hurricane devastated Central American countries, and soon developed into a permanent training site for a wider range of countries,” Hopenhayn said. “There are currently about 50 U.S. students studying there; we met one student from Wyoming who is glad to get a free medical education, while learning Spanish.”

Berres added that U.S. medical students who have been trained in Cuba, have a very high rate of passing the Medical Licensing Examination in the U.S.

The delegation also noted some of the disadvantages of Cuba’s health care system, such as the quality of its medical facilities.

“Many of the problems with Cuba’s health care system are associated with the American embargo,” Berres said. “This prevents them from having access to the latest pharmaceutical and technological advances, so many of their facilities are very basic.”

Despite the embargo, Cuban research laboratories are developing innovative procedures, such as a vaccine for lung cancer and a treatment for diabetes that can prevent amputations.

“They have things that we as U.S. citizens — because of the embargo — do not have access to,” Sarah Yeiser, a master’s student in public health, said. “It is not just a one-way relationship; we have an opportunity to benefit from Cuba.”

The delegation met with many Cubans who shared their thoughts about their country and its health care system.

“Everyone we spoke with was willing to discuss the problems in Cuba with us, including their low salaries and scarcity of certain products,” said Hopenhayn. “Yet they all praised their health care and educational systems, which are free for all citizens. Cuba may not be perfect, but Cubans seemed very proud of what their country has achieved.”

Education Abroad Director Anthony Ogden said that it had been a long time since UK has planned a program in Cuba. Nonetheless Ogden is looking forward to offering Berres’ and Hopenhayn’s Cuba program again next year.

Derrick Meads and Sarah Geegan are writers for UKNow.

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