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Cuban Healthcare: 11 Interesting Facts You Didn’t Know

Cuban healthcare professionals

During the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro pledged to adopt universal healthcare and to take Cuban medical expertise abroad. When he came into power in 1959, he held onto his promises and went on to plant the seeds of a healthcare system that has become the pride of the Cuban government ever since.

According to state media, Cuba has sent over 400,000 healthcare professionals to work in 147 countries since the practice of sending doctors abroad began. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Cuba has been at the forefront of global headlines once again, as it was recently reported to have sent a team of medical professionals to Italy to help them to manage the surge in coronavirus cases.

Here are 11 interesting facts about Cuban healthcare that you probably don’t know:

1. Healthcare is free and a fundamental human right

Healthcare in Cuba is free for everyone, whether that means going for a preventative screening or undergoing the most complicated surgery. There are no private clinics, and the Cuban government runs the entire system. However, one of the criticisms in recent times has been the lack of modernisation in hospital infrastructure and equipment.

2. Health indicators are on par with developed countries

Cuba has impressively high rankings in all significant healthcare indicators. Life expectancy is on a par with the US at 79 years, and infant mortality is lower than many countries at 4.2 deaths per 1000 live births. Given that Cuba spends almost a tenth less than the US on healthcare per person, how are these achievements even possible? The simple answer is that Cuba’s lack of resources forces the system to focus on prevention and keeping people healthy.

3. Innovative community care model  

The secret to Cuba’s success has been its primary care model. Cuba has 498 polyclinics set up in neighbourhoods, which are run by a team made up of a family physician, a nurse, and often a social worker. This team usually lives above the clinic and is responsible for the wellbeing of all the families living in the surrounding area. Family physicians will knock on the doors of residents at least once a year to ask about their health and conduct a thorough medical exam. 

4. Highest number of doctors per person  

These extraordinary community outreach efforts require a sizeable medical workforce, which Cuba has trained up over the years. Today, Cuba has amongst the highest ratio of doctors to population size, with 8.2 per 1,000 people. This is significant in comparison to major economic powers, considering Germany has 4.2, Italy 4.1, France 3.2, the UK 2.8 and the US 2.6.

5. Overseas medical missions 

Cuba has been sending doctors on foreign missions since 1963, and today over 28,000 professionals are working in over 59 countries, stretching from South Africa to the Middle East. There is even a government hospital in Qatar, staffed with Cuban-trained personnel. The Cuban government has used the supply of doctors to build diplomatic ties with other countries, and this has also provided Cuba with a steady flow of revenues.

6. First to respond to global disaster relief efforts

Cuban medical professionals have worked in the most demanding conditions. Whenever there is a global crisis, it is not uncommon to see Cuban healthcare workers come to another country’s aid in the relief efforts. Recent examples include supporting the response to the Kashmir earthquake, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and today, the Covid-19 pandemic.

7. Inbound medical care efforts

An often overlooked fact has been Cuba’s inbound relief efforts in bringing patients into Cuba for healthcare treatment and recovery. One example, reported by Helen Yaffe, was the Cuban aid effort during the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1989:

Under the ‘Children of Chernobyl’ programme, which ran from 1989 to 2013 some 22,000 children and 4,000 adults, victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, received free medical care, accommodation, food and therapy in Tarará, 10 miles outside Havana. Despite the severe economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Cubans footed the bill — an astonishing expression of solidarity that has received almost no acknowledgement.

8. Average health professional wage is only $65

The Cuban government pays the salaries of healthcare professionals, and these are reported to be around $65 per month. This is extremely low compared to developed nations, but it is also important to note that Cuba is a communist country run on a different set of rules. The government owns 90% of the country and controls salaries in return for free healthcare, education, housing, food and other basic needs.

9. Agreements have included oil in exchange for doctors 

One of the largest deployments of overseas Cuban healthcare workers was to neighbouring Venezuela in the new millennium. There are reported to be thousands of Cuban medics working in Venezuela as part of a bilateral trade agreement between the two nations, which has seen Cuba receive up to 53,000 barrels of oil per day.

10. Integrated medical education 

Cuba has a reputable medical education system, which draws on research from its vast network of global healthcare missions. Classroom theory is integrated with community-based practice, and students are taught about the importance of international solidarity. Beyond education, the Ministry of Public Health is also active in several international clinical research projects.

11. Medical tourism in Cuba

Cuban healthcare facilities treat around 20,000 paying medical tourists a year, and these are usually in specially assigned facilities catering for foreigners and VIPs. The availability of quality healthcare at very affordable prices is an attractive proposition for medical tourists coming from all countries, especially the US.

Cuba’s healthcare model is one of a kind. Despite a severe lack of resources, Cuba has accomplished universal healthcare, is keeping its people healthy on par with developed countries and continues to support humanitarian medical efforts around the world. 

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