HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba’s renowned universal healthcare system has received attention and praise from the global community. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), praised the Cuban leadership for its efforts in making “health an essential pillar of development”.
Cuba’s focus on preventative care, particularly via active screenings, sets it apart from many western countries.
According to Dr. Cristina Luna, Cuba’s national director of ambulatory care, health clinics in the country go beyond providing basic services by responding to specific community needs.
For example, one clinic may provide extra counseling in a community a large population of smokers while another provides routine allergy tests in a community where allergies are known to be common.
Cuban physician, Dr. Rebeca Mendoza, argued to the World Health Organization that active population screening allows Cuban doctors to routinely assess community health and keep track of various health trends.
Many other nations, such as the U.S., have systems that focus on treating disease instead of prevention. Margaret Chan of the WHO, argues that this curative model is “inefficient and more expensive”.
In addition, the U.S. ranks third in health care expenditures, spending 17.1 percent of its GDP on health care in 2013. On the other hand, care in Cuba amounts to only 8.8 percent of its GDP.
It is important to take into consideration differences in wages and population size when considering the expenditures of both countries. However, it is also worth mentioning that for all the extra financial investment the U.S. makes, Cuba has largely achieved results “similar to those in developing countries” according to a Huffington Post article.
As of 2015, the World Bank reports that both countries have a life expectancy of 70 years and Cuba has a slightly lower infant mortality rate, at 4 deaths per 1000 births versus 6 deaths per 1000 births in the United States.
According to Al-Jazeera, every square block is assigned a family doctor, who lives in the neighborhood and receives patients at his or her home office.
Physicians know everyone in their community, ensuring that children receive necessary vaccinations, pregnant women are provided with monthly check-ups and at-risk patients get monthly blood tests.
Additionally, the Huffington Post notes that family doctors are involved with “both in-hospital and community management of their patients”. All recently discharged patients receive daily home visits to ensure a smooth transition from hospital to home.
Ileana Gonzalez, a Cuban ophthalmologist interviewed by Al-Jazeera, argues that “Because of our socialist system, [providing care]has nothing to do with profit.”
As a result of the strict economic embargo with the U.S., Cuba lacked access to many technologies and medicines. In response, Cuba has developed its own pharmaceutical industry and now also exports medicine.
A considerable quantity of resources has been invested in developing medical expertise in order to compete with advanced nations. Academic journals research and collaboration with other Latin American countries has made Cuba a major provider of medical expertise.
Cuba trains young physicians worldwide in its Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). According to the Huffington Post, since its inception in 1998, ELAM has graduated more than 20,000 doctors from over 123 countries.
Education and Global Impact
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, Cuba has almost achieved universal literacy because of the importance placed on education. In addition, Al-Jazeera notes that health and sexual education are promoted throughout schools.
For years. the Cuban government has been sending its doctors abroad to combat global health issues. According to Al-Jazeera, a 2004 campaign was implemented to provide cataract operations, free of charge, to poor populations throughout Latin America.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Cuba sent hundreds of doctors and nurses to African regions severely affected by the virus.
In the same year, LABIOFAM, a Cuban research institute, carried out a vaccination campaign against malaria throughout Africa.
The Cuban healthcare system, like healthcare in every country, is imperfect. Cuba still struggles with periodic medicine shortages, relatively high maternal death rates and increasing obesity rates.
To suggest that the world should exactly model the Cuban healthcare system would be unrealistic, as different countries have different political systems and population needs.
However, the positive policies Cuba employs — strong physician-community relationships, a focus on monitoring and prevention and a commitment to global health — can inform progress around the world and help create healthcare that is affordable and effective.
– Taylor Resteghini