Cuba Deal Could Have Unexpected Silver Lining: Medical Tourism

Published August 17, 2015

The United States and Cuba have apparently buried the hatchet and will open embassies in each other’s capitals after more than 50 years of hostilities, President Barack Obama formally announced during a press conference in the White House’s Rose Garden on July 1, 2015. Although the move has raised legitimate concerns among human rights activists, there may still be a silver lining in this new era of openness with our neighbor: medical tourism.

Cuba has approximately 69,000 doctors, or 6.7 physicians for every 1,000 citizens, according to the World Bank. Since the Castros took power in the 1959 revolution, health care has been a priority for the regime. The communist government pushed to provide universal, free health care for all Cubans, while sending medical personnel around the world to spread communism and bolster foreign relations, especially among leftist governments in South America, such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

For sending its health care workers to other countries, the Cuban government receives about $7.6 billion per year, all while it grossly underpays those practicing abroad compared to non-Cuban doctors. Physicians working in Cuba only earn about $30 a month.

Besides the low pay, there are other enormous differences between the medical systems of Cuba and the United States. Stories abound of Cuban medical students and doctors being trained with medical books edited in 1962, and there have been reports of shortages of modern medical equipment, drugs, and diagnostic tools that are taken for granted in developed countries.

Those low salaries and undersupplied facilities pay dividends, however. Every year, thousands of people from other countries, mainly Canada and Western Europe, go to Cuba as medical tourists, often because the treatment is less expensive there or because long waiting periods abound in their native country.

Cheaper Cuban health care will no doubt appeal to many Americans as well. Currently, the most popular destinations for American medical tourists are Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore, and Costa Rica, and the most common procedures performed are spinal, weight-loss, cosmetic surgery, and cancer treatments, according to a study by the Medical Tourism Association.

Cuban health care may be less expensive, but there are significant shortcomings and risks involved. Some medicines are hard to find or unavailable, and hospitals commonly lack up-to-date equipment, although doctors say the government has recently invested in modernizing some facilities.

During Obama’s press conference, Cuba made its own announcement in the form of a 700-word declaration posted on Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, saying, “To achieve normalization [of diplomatic relations] it will be essential also that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned.”

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has been the home to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp since 2012. It’s located on 45 square miles of a bay the United States has leased as a coaling and naval station since 1903.

I suggest we try something altogether different: Let’s work with the Cuban government to develop Guantanamo into a medical tourism free-enterprise zone, with Cuban health care providers allowed to treat non-Cubans with minimal government interference and guaranteed oversight by the U.S. government. After 100 years, it can revert to full Cuban control.

Think of the possibilities: Cuba is only 90 miles south of Florida and less than one hour’s flight from Miami International Airport. As our own health care system devolves more into a command-and-control-based social experiment rife with excessive costs, regulations, waste, fraud, and graft, American health care providers could build a health care system from the ground up in Guantanamo, free from the dictates of both Castroism and Obamacare. It would become a mecca for medical tourism.

The situation and timing are perfect. Cuba’s sunny climate and beaches along, with its plentiful, eager, and trained medical personnel would create all sorts of opportunities for innovation when mixed with unfettered capitalism. Exciting medical advancements are sure to follow, and the experiment may even have some positive ripple effects on the rulers of Cuba and those of the United States.

[Originally published at the Times and Democrat]