Cuban Program to Educate Minority Health Professionals Has Some Americans Going Abroad to Earn Medical Degrees

The idea of becoming a physician never crossed his mind. But when Jose Eduardo De Leon learned of a free medical degree program in Havana, he jumped at the opportunity to apply.

De Leon is one of eight American students to graduate recently from the Latin American School of Medical Sciences (LASMS) in a history-making ceremony. For the last six years, De Leon and hundreds of other students of color have received free tuition, room and board and textbooks as they undertook an intensive curriculum in their pursuit of medical studies in Cuba.

The summer ceremony was surreal for De Leon, 27, who recounts why he decided to attend medical school overseas.

“I decided that it was something positive worth taking part in, seeing as this program’s main goal is to increase health care to underserved communities around the world,” says the Oakland, Calif., native. “I think this program was a life-changing experience for many reasons, and it’s one of the best – if not the best – decisions that I’ve made in my life.”

The six-year medical degree program, which is administered through the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), is divided into 12 semesters and begins every September. Students study at LASMS for two years and then continue their medical studies at one of Cuba’s regional medical schools, officials say. All classes are taught in Spanish.

Although fifth-year LASMS medical student Narciso Ortiz was fluent in Spanish before arriving in Cuba, he struggled to keep up at first.

“Like many of the students, I was taught here in the United States in English,” Ortiz, 32, says. “One of the most challenging things is mastering the language and the level of control that they want in the sciences, in particular.”

Ortiz, a native of Newark, N.J., will return to Havana this fall as he continues his journey to becoming the first doctor in his family.

“The program has a supportive environment: the school, the teachers and the administrators all want you to succeed,” says Ortiz, who hopes to pursue a career in internal medicine. “There’s a whole sense of ‘we’ here that I don’t think exists in the United States.”

LASMS enrolls more than 3,000 students from 23 countries around the world, officials say. Coordinators expect about 20 newly admitted American students to enroll in the medical program this year. The need for minority physicians is particularly acute in America. Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians make up 25 percent of the U.S. population, but only 6 percent of practicing physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

The scholarship program was born after a meeting in Cuba in 2000 between a delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus and Cuban President Fidel Castro. During that meeting, American officials discussed the need for more physicians in the poorest areas of the United States. Castro then made the offer to provide full scholarships to minority students who wish to earn medical degrees in his country.

“We are prepared to grant a number of scholarships to poor youth who cannot

afford to pay the $200,000 it costs to get a medical degree in the U.S.,” Castro said after the meeting. “What we want from the Latin American School of Medical Sciences is for students from our sister nations to become imbued with the same doctrine in which our own doctors are educated, with that total devotion to their noble, future profession. For a doctor is like a shepherd, a priest, a missionary, a crusader for the people’s health and physical and mental well-being.”

LASMS is approved as a foreign medical school by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates. Recent LASMS graduates must now complete the same series of U.S. medical licensing exams as domestic medical students before applying for residency, says Ellen Bernstein, a spokeswoman for IFCO.

Bernstein says graduates of American medical schools may receive preferential treatment when applying to residency programs but notes that hospitals in low-income communities tend to have many foreign-trained physicians.

“The students graduating from the LASMS program will have distinct advantages,” Bernstein says. “They are U.S.-born and familiar with the culture of the communities where they will be working. Their training is oriented toward primary and preventive care, global health and hands-on clinical skills. And they will be fully bilingual, which is worth its weight in gold in most U.S. hospitals.”

Despite a U.S. embargo, Cuba continues to stay at the forefront of the world’s health care system. In recent years, the country has dispatched teams of doctors and medical professionals to the most impoverished regions of Latin America and Africa and is working on an initiative to help victims of AIDS. 

–Dana Forde

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