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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 13 | Nov. 7, 2002

UBC Med Students Impressed with Cuban Health-Care System

High Quality of Care Stems from High Quality of Caring

By Hilary Thomson

Few North Americans would suspect a model public health-care system could be found in a developing country.

Yet for four UBC first-year medical students that’s exactly what they found in Cuba during an eight-week elective this summer.

“We wanted to expose students early in their career to innovations in the Cuban medical system,” says Jerry Spiegel, director of Global Health at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. “The elective gave students a better appreciation of the range of population health issues and showed them how much is possible with limited resources.”

The long-term goal of such exchanges is to equip and motivate Canadian physicians and researchers to promote global health involvement, he adds.

The trip was made possible through UBC’s collaboration with the medical school in Santa Clara in central Cuba. Based in student residences, students shadowed family doctors at community practice clinics, took field trips to learn about issues such as emergency, rural and occupational health and studied Spanish.

“I came back with a deeper sense of the social aspects of medicine,” says student Erin Adams. “The extreme sacrifices made by Cuban doctors reinforced for me the basic elements of choosing medicine as a profession, namely, a genuine care for people’s health and a passion for the art and science of medicine.”

Student Arlene MacDougall agrees.

“I learned how impressive the Cuban medical system was both in organization and delivery. I realized that a high quality of care could be given in the absence of technology and resources.”

Elizabeth Kenward appreciated learning about the role of doctors in international politics and health policy as well as ideas for patient care that integrate natural, physical and medical treatments in one clinic.

Cuba’s system emphasizes preventive medicine and neighbourhood-based family medicine with clinics located every three or four blocks in a community. Regional systems of health-care services and continuing professional training also enrich the country’s delivery of health services, says Spiegel.

When students weren’t doing academic work, they took in beaches, opera, museums and open-air concerts and played soccer in the streets with children in Santa Clara. Despite language barriers, all students were impressed with the warmth and helpfulness of their medical school hosts and other community members.

The exchange is an offshoot of a five-year research project that Spiegel is leading to help Cuban institutions strengthen their teaching of environmental health risks assessments and management. Establishing continuing relationships with Cuban health professionals and researchers is a key element in his efforts to foster internationalization among Canadian academics and students.

“Public health is a national priority in Cuba and funding is maintained at all costs,” he says. “We Canadians have a lot to learn from this model.” Spiegel also co-chairs a national group called Coalition for Global Health Research (Canada) that seeks to develop Canada’s role in international health research.

Following a September 2001 conference he chaired at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, global health experts agreed to form a coalition to seek and co-ordinate funding and research opportunities to address health needs of developing countries through a coalition.

Spiegel and coalition member Arun Chockalingam, assistant director of the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health based at St. Paul’s Hospital, will travel to Tanzania this month. They will participate in a joint meeting with the African Forum for Health Research and the Global Forum for Health Research to explore opportunities for collaborative research on African health issues.

More information on the coalition may be found at www.cghrc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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