US Med Students Study for Free in Cuba

This CBS Evening News story by Kelly Cobiella raises some interesting questions. The story tells about 12 US medical students who are graduating from Medical School in Cuba, having been given six years of free education and training in exchange for a commitment to serve needy communities back in the US. Cobiella interviews one of the medical students who was filmed in Sicko when the 9/11 workers were being seen by doctors in Cuba. Evelyn Erickson, the medical student interviewed, was sympathetic for the problems of the 9/11 workers. From the article:

Evelyn Erickson is from Washington Heights in New York City. She was lured to Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine by the promise of a free education — a gift of sorts from the Cuban government.

Fidel Castro started the school in 1999. His goal was to train people at no cost, in return for their pledge to practice medicine in poor communities back home — an offer extended to a handful of U.S. students in 2001.

It’s a world away from the United States. Home for Evelyn and her fellow students was an old army barracks with bunk beds, cold showers and a four-dollar-a-month stipend. And, unlike the U.S. where students spend four years in classrooms and labs, these students spend six years in classrooms and clinics.

“They were calling me doctor, and I was like, ‘No, no I’m not the doctor. I’m the medical student,'” Evelyn says. “But what happens is that we are the people who examine the patients from the very beginning.”

They also learn about a much different healthcare system, which was documented in the recent Michael Moore film Sicko, where all services are free and everyone is covered.

“I was one of the people that was there translating for these patients when they came here to Cuba, and so I was actually there hearing their story,” Evelyn says. “And I think it proposed a really good question about looking at our medical system and seeing what kinds of things we need to change.”

Still, Cuba is no healthcare paradise. The hospitals are crumbling, doctors make about 20 dollars a month and there are shortages of almost everything from drugs to high-tech equipment.”

A free training for an MD is nothing to sneeze at, but Ericka and her fellow classmates were definitely not living the high life in Cuba, being housed in decrepit-looking barracks spray-painted with graffiti, taking cold showers, and making only $4 a month. But at the same time, what did they need to spend money on in Cuba? And remember from Sicko, an asthma inhaler in Cuba costs .02 cents.

Still, seeing the pictures of the barracks where the medical students were housed is a stark reminder of how poor some countries are, particularly countries that fell under Communist rule. It brought me back to a trip I made to Czechoslovakia when I was 21, after graduating from Hunter College and before taking my first job as an Assistant Editor for The Hudson Review. It was shortly after the “Velvet Revolution” and while there was a spirit of rebirth in the air, buoyed by tourism dollars pouring into the country, there were also painful reminders of a country that had lived under a repressive imperialist power. There was no sense of abundance of material goods or food. And there was a certain hollowness to the social community, a lingering sense of distrust and fear.

One thing that interests me about this is that despite being a very poor country, Cuba finds room in its medical school to train American doctors for free, so they can return to the US and practice medicine. They are willing to help us in this way, even in their extreme poverty as a country. They are helping us. It makes me question what we, the wealthiest country in the world, are doing to help them.

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3 responses

  1. Not only room for US doctors, but tens of thousands of Latin American, Asian and African doctors – all free of charge. And these are doctors that have pledged to help the poor, not practice in private clinics for the rich – as most need to do to pay back their loans.

    BTW – Cubans do not have a consumer culture like ours, but it is hardly “extreme poverty” – at least how the UN defines it. No one starves, no one is homeless, no one must work rather than get an education, no one dies of 3rd world diseases, etc.

  2. Donald Wolberg

    The Cuban philosophy of medical care is interesting and certainly provides a need to look at what medical priorities for patients should and shouldn’t be. Certainly the Cuban system is different: it certainly seems to be largely pallative in terms of philosophy and not curative, but then most (perhaps 80%) of patients who visit doctors anywhere really do well with a pallative agenda: “take 2 aspirins, drink lots of fluids and call me in the morning,” mostly works well, as does the antiseptic and bandages for cuts and bruises. Most of this will work in most of the world and most of the world is undeveloped. None of this requires much in the way of technology or advance diagnostic modalities the Cubans lack in the first place, but then Cuba is part of the undeveloped world. Being a part of that world makes the Cuban approach logical, economical and relevant.

    Certain issues will remain, of course. It may be a real hurdle for the Cuban trained medical cadre to pass the tests Western medical students/physicians are requred to pass. It is not likely that they have had the experience base with the sophisticated medical approaches, so much of it technological and analytical. On the face of it, in their training, they have not been exposed to the caliber of expertise of professors in the classroom, so evident in Western universities, medical schools and hospitals. Nor have they had access to the literature of medicine, chemistry, biology, etc., so much a aprt of education of our medical people and allied scientists.

    None of this is meant to be judgemental. In the end, Cuban medicine does what Cuban society values: pallative care for the most people at least cost. Much of this kind of care can be provided in the U.S. with a modest restructuring of our medical system, and some of this is happening. Most of what the Cuban trained students seem to do is already done by our nurse-practioners in rural parts of the U.S. However I would also suggest that Americans have a higher level of expectation for care, certainly for more serious maladies, the understanding of which is largely the result of very advanced medical knowledge almost solely the product of Western medicine.

  3. HALLO CUBA!

    I WISH A GOOD HELTH FOR MR. PRESEDENT FIDEL, FIRST! I’M KURD FROM KURDISTAN, AND I LIKE TO STUDY IN YOUR COUNTRY, BUT I’M A POUR PERSON HAVE NOT MONEY TO PAY, THEREFOR I LOOK FOR FREE FEES AN UNIVERSITY, IF THERE ARE SOME UNIVERSITY TO I COULD STUDY FREE, WITH PLESURE I WILL CAMME THERE TO STUDY!
    I BEE VERY GLADE IF YOU INFORM ME ABOUT IT!

    BEST REGARD! BAYRAM KAGA

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