Cuba Trains Doctors for
by Tom Whitney
U.S. young people are off to Cuba in mid February to study medicine at that
nation’s Latin American School of Medicine (LASM). They join 8000 other students
already there. The students have promised to attend to the poor and under
served in the 26 nations they come from, eight of them African. The School
opened in 1999 and 1500 new physicians will graduate in August.
Students at the School are unable to find or pay for a medical education
in their own countries. Cuba pays all expenses at the LASM. The curriculum
involves a six -month pre-medical review course, basic medical sciences for
two years and then clinical studies for four years at another Cuban medical
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, visiting in Havana in 2000, told
Fidel Castro about physician shortages in the United States. Cuba responded
by offering 500 annual scholarships to the LASM. The first U.S. students
arriving in 2001 will graduate in 2007. Presently the U.S. enrollment includes
75 students from 18 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico, most of them
Black or Latino women.
The Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizing (IFCO), the interfaith
solidarity organization led by Rev. Lucius Walker, has recruited students
for the LASM. Earlier this year, they were on the verge of having to leave
Cuba, because of tightened travel restrictions. But, according to Ellen Bernstein
of IFCO, that group and the Congressional Black Caucus put pressure on the
State Department to issue special travel authorization for LASM students.
The LASM is located a few miles west of Havana on the site of a former navy
base. When they graduate, the U.S. students will have to find residency-
training posts in U.S. hospitals and take U.S. licensure examinations, for
which IFCO has organized tutoring.
The students, from low- income backgrounds, were unable to pay the $200,000
or so it takes to become a doctor in the United States. Parents of U.S. medical
students, whites and minorities alike, are relatively well off. In 2000,
the parents of 36% of all U.S. freshmen medical students earned between $100,000
and $250,000 annually, and the parents of another 10%, more than $250,000.
Graduating seniors take on educational debts averaging almost $150,000. Only
six percent of the students had parents earning less than $50,000 a year.
A LASM student from the Bronx writes, "Imagine, growing up in a poor neighborhood…and
being told, implicitly and explicitly, by society that your career choices
were limited. For a long time I didn’t know that someone like myself, an
African-American woman, could be, or had the opportunity, to become a doctor."
It’s a matter of exclusion, writes Fitzhugh Mullan in a New England Journal
of Medicine article about the LASM (December 23, 2004). He’s the former head
of the U.S. National Health Services Corps. "Students from these minority
groups simply don't get into medical school as often as their majority peers,
which results in a scarcity of minority physicians. This inequity translates
into suffering and death."
Cuba puts the right to health care into revolutionary practice. In 1961 there
were only 3000 doctors in Cuba and one medical school. Now there are 22 medical
schools, and 70,000 physicians. Over the course of 30 years, 25,000 Cuban
volunteer physicians have worked in more than 60 countries. 15,000 Cuban
doctors - 11,000 of them in Venezuela - are now caring for patients in 50
countries. The LASM is indeed a bold venture, but hardly a surprising one
given Cuba’s record of humanitarian outreach.
Cuba looks to the long haul, and that’s why the LASM exists. In 1998, terrible
hurricanes wrought havoc in Central America. 12,000 people died. Cuban doctors
were already there, but after the storms, more came. Fidel Castro spoke at
the LASM inauguration. "The television images … shocked the world. But, the
shock fades away in a few weeks and soon everything is forgotten. The great
promises are never delivered. Meanwhile, death continues to quietly take
more lives every year than those caused by all the natural disasters together."
LASM - trained doctors will be going back into the hinterlands and barrios
of their own countries, and staying. Some of the Cuban doctors may then be
able to go home.