ELAM in Cuba: The Challenge of Training Physicians
Source: Prensa Latina, 03 August 2011.
By Roberto Hernandez
The Latin American Medical School (ELAM) in Cuba continues the challenge of training physicians from many countries including the United States, with the ability to offer their services anywhere in the world.
That has been the path taken by the almost 10,000 graduates of the School, located on the western outskirts of Havana, including the 153 US citizens who have received their degrees there so far, mostly members of ethnic minorities and the poor.
All we ask of the young (17 to 25 years) students is that once they have graduated they go back to their villages or poor neighborhoods and practice what they have learned, said the academic vice-rector of ELAM, Midalys Castilla.
"We need doctors in the whole world, but especially doctors like the Cubans who are willing to work anywhere," said Helen Bernstein, one of the leaders of the US-Cuba Friendship Caravan, which recently brought more than 100 tons of aid to the island
We want doctors with a focus on human beings, capable of feeling and sharing their knowledge as many times as necessary, added Bernstein, who is also the acting coordinator of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO).
She made these observations during the graduation of 40 of her country folk as doctors, speaking on behalf of the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), that since the beginning of this century offers in the U.S.A. scholarships for training in Cuba.
Beyond political motivations, the presence of the North Americans in the Caribbean nation has yielded dividends for the young people, nourished by a vision of preventive care, which is absent from most schools in the U.S.A.
Medical students in Havana, for example, are able to attend to people in places without electricity or running water, when high technology diagnostic equipment is not available.
One might think that these talents are not useful in the U.S., but there are poor communities there that do not have a single doctor and have come to resemble parts of the Third World.
The idea gained momentum especially after the disaster caused in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and highlighted the problems of health care in that country.
Cuba began to train US medical students after members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with then President Fidel Castro in 2000.
Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi told Fidel Castro about the problems in areas of his legislative district that suffered an acute shortage of doctors.
The leader of the Revolution responded by offering scholarships to 500 US young people to attend the Latin American Medical School, founded in November 1999 to provide medical studies for youth of the region, an idea later extended to Africans and Asians.
To qualify, students would have to demonstrate ability and commitment to work in disadvantaged communities in the United States, the very country that for over 50 years has tried to defeat the Cuban revolutionary project.
Since 2001, the interfaith group IFCO, Pastors for Peace and its late leader Lucius Walker, drew up a plan to increase minority participation in medicine in order to augment the ratio of doctors to patients in disadvantaged areas.
The lack of these in the neediest communities in the U.S. is exactly what IFCO wanted to remedy, when it began recruiting for scholarships in Cuba.
Most students from that country in the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana are African Americans from New York or California; 85 percent are from minority groups and 73 percent are women.
EMERGENCE OF ELAM
Classes began in February 1999 with some 1,900 young people, many from Central America, then affected by Hurricane Mitch, which left some 19 thousand people dead or missing.
Initially all students were prepared in the facilities of ELAM, in an area of one million 200 thousand square meters.
That changed in 2005, when future graduates in their third year of study began to be placed in the 21 faculties of medical science in the country, where they share their training with Cuban colleagues.
At the present time about 10 thousand young people from 55 countries are studying medicine in Cuba. Seventy-five percent are children of workers and peasants, and 104 indigenous communities of Latin America are represented among them.
The idea that the Cuban government uses the school and its large number of graduates to make propaganda in favour of socialism is shattered by the existence of some 78,000 Cuban doctors trained to serve a population of 11.2 million.