Cuba’s Public Health Policy: Past Present & Future

Graham Sowa

Cuban doctors. File photo.

HAVANA TIMES — “Public health in Cuba is not a priority…,” my public health class teacher had finally said something that brought me back from daydreaming “…it is an obsession”.

After two years of clinical work in a Cuban hospital being back in a classroom learning public health theory is somewhere between mind numbing and infuriating.

I often wonder how I put up with this nonsense beforehand. Maybe because my Spanish was worse and I didn’t understand how empty theory sounds while outside the classroom door a very different reality is taking place.

Aside from the looming self-inflicted disconnect between theory and reality in Cuba my professor is absolutely correct, in Cuba public health is an obsession.

Getting to the status quo of a singular, state funded public health system is a journey marked four key periods and a contemporary fifth that is still being defined.

At the onset of the Revolutionary government control in 1959 the Cuban public health landscape looked much like the current United States: various levels of public, private, religious and mutual aid services.

The Revolutionary public health system began with a significant human resources shortage as tens of thousands of professionals left the island.

The government reacted by training new doctors in new medical schools. The first class held their graduation ceremony on the Pico Turquino, the highest point on the island. The invited guests were the peasants from the surrounding area, soon to be benefiting from these new graduates via the Rural Medical Corps. This symbolic act set the tone for the future of public health on the island.

Along with training thousands of new doctors nationalization of health centers began in earnest. Health insurance or “mutual aid” hospitals numbered 226 in 1961. By 1968 all but 27 had been placed under government control. The Salvador Allende Hospital where I work, once part of the Asturian Society, is legacy of this period. The last center nationalized (in 1970) was the “Centro Benéfico Jurídico de Trabajadores de Cuba”, now a pulmonary hospital that does our bronchoscopies and inpatient treatment of tuberculosis.

Cuban doctors in Venezuela. Foto: Miozoteis Fabelo

The second step was the Health Plan of 1970-1980. Focus was shifted from disease treatment to disease prevention in the cities and rural areas. Malaria, polio and diphtheria were eradicated. Dengue was said to be eradicated as well but now it can be argued to be an endemic disease once again, perhaps the same with cholera.

Medical service did not become universally free of charge until during the second decade of the revolution.

The internationalist mission of Cuban public health also began to expand to 3 continents during this time; a continuation of those national brigades of doctors that made up the Rural Health Corps mountainous eastern Cuba.

Part three of public health development came in the 70´s and 80´s with new health technology arriving from the Soviet Union. Investigative institutes were created, and Cuba remains one of the few countries in South America and the Caribbean with such an extensive offering of medical specialties and research fields.

The famous Polyclinic and Family Doctor were introduced as an experimental concept in 1984 to create a highly structured three tier prevention and treatment system that would cover every citizen of the island. This model was expanded to the whole nation within 10 years and largely governs public health policy today. This is also what bores the hell out of me in my public health class.

The fourth part of public health development in Revolutionary Cuba was surviving a hard right hook and uppercut combo. The first came in the form of the collapse of the Eastern European socialist projects and the second came as the form of the Torricelli and Helms-Burton act. The Soviet collapse erased foreign public health subsidies and technological support while the strengthened United States blockade made getting that money and support from other sources unlikely to impossible.

These crises in Cuban public health have constructed the reality of the system we live in today.

Doctors and patients are used to working and being cared for with a scarcity of materials, everyone knows hospital food will be terrible, and having good relationships with people in the health field is the most important part of navigating the bureaucracy of care.

The previous massive government expenditure toward public health grew even more when the Latin American School of Medicine opened in 1999 benefiting students from other countries (such as myself). This probably marks the last great public health change instigated by Fidel Castro.

Since Raul Castro became president the public health system has faced the same problem many tech startups in Silicon Valley face: how do we monetize a free service without sacrificing quality or creating barriers?

The answer to this question is what I propose to be the fifth step of the Cuban Public health system: creating an internationally profitable public health system based off of the previous egalitarian internationalist model.

Cuban doctors working in Venezuela and Brazil making money for the Cuban government have resulted in good health outcomes for millions of people and plenty of criticism about state coercion of public employees. Yet tens of thousands of Cuban doctors continue to go on mission. While some do leave these projects and immigrate to other countries many more are more or less satisfied with the experience. At least that is my impression from talking to those that return.

Medical school, residency, research and the biotechnology sector has been internationally commodified as a source of income for the Cuban state.

Now what was converted to a free public health system in the 1970´s is one of the biggest sources of income for the Cuban state. This incredible paradox should, at the very least, leave United States assumptions about static Communism ruling Cuba by the wayside. What is emerging in the public health system is a capital generating mechanism with the ends of paying for continued free health care for the Cuban people.

Next week one of our internal medicine wards at the Salvador Allende hospital will be closed to the Cuban population for use by medical tourism. Once again paying patients will walk through its doors after 50-odd years of free health care.

Obsession over public health in Cuba has pushed it to the point to accept that entering the globalized health market might be the best way to save socialism.

9 thoughts on “Cuba’s Public Health Policy: Past Present & Future

  • Sending medical service, at the behest o f Venezuela, is a giant scam. Cuba pays for free oil by enslaving doctors to work overseas.

  • It isn’t “CUBAQUS” that says ELAM sucks, it are the professional
    verification boards of Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil and Pakistan that do so.

    I could post lots of links.

    So: there are no “two extremes”. There is the Castro propaganda and the result of impartial exams that are applied equally to all doctors graduated abroad to get licensed in the countries mentioned above.

    This isn’t between “me and Graham”, this is about facts and omission of facts.

    The “intellectual and tangible health assets” of Cuba are expropriated by the regime for the benefit of its survival. That is a fact. That is the problem for the Cuban people.

    You need to get some first hand experience of what the Cuban health service for Cubans is in reality.

    What I would recommend is to end apartheid in the medical system in Cuba, to open the economy so all can earn a good life while a good heath service for all can be financed without using people as slaves.

  • The US television program “60 Minutes” did a long segment on this research last Sunday. It is available online, but few Cuban’s have fast enough Internet connections to view it (and it is in English).

    Is this sort of programming available in the weekly paquete?

    Here is an article that covers the 60 Minutes program and puts it in context:

  • This exchange is reminiscent of the black versus white “dialog” between conservative and liberal politicians in my country.

    Graham: ELAM is terrific and the foreign missions by doctors are generally successful.
    CUBAQUS: ELAM sucks and the doctors are slaves.

    I am skeptical of both extremes, and would welcome unbiased data and analysis that illuminated the shades of grey between them — that might lead to constructive recommendations.

    Like you, I balked at the image of closing Cuban wards, but Cuba has intellectual and tangible health care assets and the relationship between Cuba and the world (not only the US) is changing.

    Graham has called for recommendations — we note your criticism — what would you recommend?

  • Graham, you really missed the mark with this post. In politics, we call this a puff piece. CUBAQUS comments are spot on.

  • Well said.

  • What an interesting post — raises many questions. Does the government profit from ELAM? Has there been a systematic study of the economics of foreign missions and the satisfaction of doctors returning from them? … I could go on.

    You drew a parallel to a Silicon Valley problem — trying to find ways to “monetize” free services, but Silicon Valley may also offer solutions.

    Assuming Internet access improves significantly in universities and on INFOMED, could Cuba offer medically-oriented online services and education?

    Are there inventions, technologies, medicines and therapies that you have developed for resource-poor conditions that could be refined and marketed? Cuba has a lot of trained computer scientists, biotech and medical practitioners and researchers, etc. — is there the equivalent of an interdisciplinary Silicon Valley-like “incubator” organization or culture? (I would think Cuba might have a more generally cooperative culture than the US, but I may be naive).

    Silicon Valley venture capital may be hard to come by — could the government act as a venture capitalist (like in Singapore — in return for equity in medical start-ups? How about Kickstarter funding? Pebble raised $20 million for a watch:
    Could Kickstarter fund the development of low-cost, simple diagnostic equipment and procedures?

  • The author totally avoids or skirts by three of the most pressing issues in the Cuban health system:
    – the “medical apartheid” in the system with well stocked, staffed and equipped hospitals for the elite and tourists and a decrepit system that lack everything – from bed sheets to doctors over medicines – for the Cuban people. All glossed over. Where will your Cuban patients have to go after your leaders close the wards you work on to them?
    – the people that labor in the “international” expansion are more than merely “coerced”. Their human and economic rights are trampled and they are used as virtual slave labor unable to get ahead and unable to leave the country.
    – the declining standards in Cuban medical education aren’t addressed. Graduates from the he Latin American School of Medicine fail qualification exams in droves in Costa Rica, Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, …

    What happens in Cuba should not “leave United States assumptions about static Communism ruling Cuba by the wayside”, it confirms the strong conviction of all that the regime will stoop at anything- denying services to its people, using slave labor, repression, coercion, abuse, … to survive.

  • I recently experienced a problem with medical services, as is a common problem for
    many people as economics and other influences deteriorate my life.
    Since Cuba is listed at the top well above my locations health system.
    That said, I was wondering about the Duke university protacol for cancer tumors which utilizes a strain of the “polio virus” drip fed into tumors to cause an immune response with a very small dose of the virus . The cancers are cured!
    The study initially showed tumor growth due to inflamation and after months full remmision. Higher doses caused an over reaction and an anti swelling agent would be appied to stablize those brain tumors. The protocal was used on every imagineable cancer including melanoma skin cancers.
    Although I am presently not aware of any health problems for myself , Cuba could help others with this cure since cancer is hitting so many people these days.
    Thank You

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