Cuba relaunches Servimed medical tourism service

Cuba is one of the unsung heroes of medical tourism, as it has been quietly attracting people from overseas for decades. The government controls access to all local hospitals for overseas patients, and has just relaunched Servimed.

Cuba is one of the unsung heroes of medical tourism, as it has been quietly attracting people from overseas for decades. The government controls access to all local hospitals for overseas patients, and has just relaunched Servimed.

Empresa Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos de Cuba S.A., known as Servimed, is a state owned and run company that offers foreigners access to the 16 Cuban hospitals and clinics that provide more than 100 types of health services on the island, ranging from cancer treatment and drug addiction programmes, to dentistry and cosmetic surgery. As an organization, their work has been ongoing for more than 20 years, initially as Servimed; later as Cubanacan Tourism and Health, then as Tourism and Health, and now back to Servimed.

It has been hidden away, but as part of a more public international role, the for-profit medical services company relaunched itself before an international business audience at the recent International Havana Fair. The expectation that President Obama will fulfil his promise to do away with the rules that prevent most US citizens going to Cuba for tourism or healthcare is part of the reason for the new openness.

Servimed deals with private individuals but its main role is to coordinate the bigger-volume business of government-to-government services. Servimed provides for-pay medical services by Cuban personnel to governments of 15 countries; which includes medical tourism. For-pay medical services to other governments are not new. Panama announced in 2011 that it will pay for the hands-on specialty training of Panamanian doctors in Cuban hospitals. Also in 2010 Qatar agreed with Cuba to pay for an undisclosed number of Cuban doctors to work in a new 54-bed hospital in the oil-rich country. Cuba also agreed in 2010 to manage and staff eye surgery centres in hospitals in China and Algeria.

Servimed is providing services to 15 countries this year, including Algeria, China, Portugal, Jamaica, Qatar, Surinam and Ukraine. Cuban medicine has become a worldwide leader in healthcare services for people in poor and rural areas as well as in disaster zones; at least 38,000 medical workers from Cuba are currently deployed in 77 countries. Cuba is in charge of a $690 million plan to rebuild Haiti’s healthcare infrastructure. Since 1998, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM) in Havana has been training 7200 students from all over the world, and graduates 1500 doctors per year.

Many of these programmes are funded by Venezuela, and others by countries such as South Africa, Brazil and Norway, but many are subsidised by Cuba. Cuba has proposed to the European Union and Canada that its doctors and medical services could be part of triangulated aid service provided in developing countries; so far, no agreement has materialized.

Venezuela is paying at least $5 billion in oil and cash per year for the services of Cuban doctors and for training of Venezuelan and third-country medical students in Cuba. Venezuela has also funded Operación Milagro, a billion-dollar programme led by Cuba that has given free eye surgery to hundreds of thousands of low-income Latin Americans.

Now, the government wants to use Servimed to make Cuba’s public health services sustainable and more efficient by generating revenues from paid for medical services and medical tourism and investing the profits in maintenance, repair and purchase of equipment for Cuba’s public health institutions.

Servimed is spearheading a Cuban effort to increase for-profit medical exports. A Public Health Ministry document published in December 2010 said that, as part of an overhaul of Cuba’s healthcare system, medical institutions should begin to sell services to foreigners wherever possible, “The medical services will remain free for poor countries. But they will be sold to those whose economy allows it, with the goal of reducing our expenses and contributing to the development of the national health system.”

The Cuban medical system now offers medical services for Canadians. Servimed’s individual subsidiary Health Services International began in January 2007. HSI is the agency officially recognised by Turismo y Salud and the Cuban medical system. It assists and guides medical tourists. In the agreement between HSI (Servimed) and Turismo y Salud, anyone who does speak Spanish will always have a medically trained person nearby who will act as an interpreter to help the medical tourist understand test results and to help when decisions are necessary. Many doctors and nurses do speak English and some speak French, also.