Expansive medical discoveries, universal health care, and a massive annual output of highly trained doctors is only a fraction of what Cuba has contributed to its citizens and the global health community.
Like all of the Cuban public sector, doctors are paid by the state. Doctors often make less than those working in the tourist industry. The practice of medicine in Cuba is driven by love and prevention, according to Dr. Mercedes Pena Brito, a Primary Care Doctor at a local “Policlínico.”
“I was driven by the humanitarian aspect of medicine,” Brito explained as she described her various mission trips to Honduras, Brazil and Venezuela. In times of severe crisis throughout the world, Cuba is often the first to respond by sending doctors and medicine. In response to Hurricane Erika on the island of Dominica, Cuba was one of the first to respond sending over 100 doctors.
Cuba recognizes the importance of direct humanitarian assistance through the aid of its doctors, but knows that this alone is not sufficient to solve larger global public health issues. Due to economic constraints, the developing world struggles to produce doctors. This is exacerbated by the inability to compete with the potential salaries received in Europe or the United States, often resulting in the so-called “brain drain.”
Socially conscious and diverse, The Latin American School of Medicine often referred to as ELAM, is Cuba’s way of helping to alleviate this issue. ELAM offers medical training directly to students from around the globe whose economic and/or social background would make this reality otherwise impossible. Free of charge for the majority of its students, ELAM has created possibilities for arguably the worlds most passionate medical students.
“The application process does not just focus on your grades but you as an overall person, your contributions to society, and why you are interested in medicine,” explained Joshua Johnson.
Johnson is a graduate of Wabash University and is currently going into his second year at ELAM. He stated that what makes the program so amazing is that it enables its students to build an international network of doctors. Across borders and cultures students are enabled to exchange ideas which may lead to further medical advances, something Johnson said is extremely important in the field of medicine.
Maryam Farrakhan, a second year student at ELAM and graduate of the University of California Los Angeles, said she was introduced to the school through her grandfather, civil rights activist Louis Farrakhan. For Maryam, being amongst future black doctors and people of color from all over the world, is what excited and attracted her most to the University.
“Our professors really want us to succeed, they want us to make it through,” emphasized Maryam as she talked about some of the challenges of receiving a medical education in Spanish, which is now her second language.
A South African third year who goes by the name of Simms, 22, expressed that if it was not for ELAM, he “would not be on the path to becoming a doctor right now.” He described the difficulty of getting accepted into medical school in South Africa, and how the teaching style there makes the level of stress almost unbearable for those who learn and work best in community.
At the end of this six year program, students have the knowledge they need to pass the series of licensing exams to practice in their respective countries. All of the students we spoke with emphasized their intentions to return home to their countries, especially in communities that lack doctors.
ELAM is producing doctors whose desire to save lives supersedes the possibility of acquiring a six figure salary.
The students of ELAM are driven by compassion, love, and dedication to tackling some of the world’s most difficult health issues including health epidemics that directly impact many of the students’ home countries. The walls of the University are decorated with art representing the students’ various cultures and backgrounds. Within these walls they are brought together to work to produce a healthier world.