30 JULY 2013 – 09H39
Cuba looks to medical tourism as income source
AFP – Football legend Diego Maradona blazed a path for Cuba to become a
medical tourism destination when he traveled to the island for drug
addiction treatment in 2000.
Since then, thousands of other famous and not-so-famous faces have
traveled here for help, and the government wants to build on that success.
Drug rehab, post-accident motor skills rehabilitation, treatment for eye
diseases and plastic surgery — foreign patients can get all of these
services and more in Cuba, and at competitive prices.
“I’ve improved tremendously. Now I can move my arms and my legs, and I
can almost sit down by myself,” said Venezuelan Cruz Ramos, who arrived
in Cuba two months ago, so injured after a car accident that he could
only move his eyes.
In downtown Havana, at a clinic that specializes in eye procedures,
fellow Venezuelan Carlos Armando Montana gushes about the services.
“Medical attention here is excellent, as much for the quality of the
doctors as for the atmosphere and the facilities,” said Montana, 24, who
underwent a retina transplant after losing the use of his left eye in a
Cuba has long been known for producing quality doctors and providing
excellent medical services, and as the communist government of President
Raul Castro seeks to revive the island’s moribund economy, it is turning
to medical tourism as a revenue generator.
Cuba’s main source of foreign income is the sale of medical services to
other countries — legions of doctors and nurses, who are public
employees, travel abroad to work following an agreement with the host
While this generates billions of dollars a year, the related field of
medical tourism is still in its infancy.
Servimed, a government-owned for-profit medical services company that
caters to foreigners, has website pages in Spanish, French and English,
the last two aimed mostly at Canadians.
“Cuba is a poor country which has placed its priorities in the right
places, which is to say, in education and health services,” reads the site.
“We offer the opportunity to be seen and treated by qualified doctors
without the delays that one would encounter while trying to visit a
doctor in Canada.”
Cuba welcomed 2.8 million tourists in 2012, according to official
figures. There are no figures however on how many of those foreigners
came specifically for medical treatment.
“Cuba has the best doctors in the world,” said Maradona after being
treated for drug addiction.
The Argentine football legend, who befriended Fidel Castro, was so
enamored with the island that he has a tattoo of Che Guevara on his
right shoulder and an image of Fidel tattooed on his left ankle.
African and Latin American leaders have also sought medical attention in
Cuba, including Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and — most notably — the late
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
At Havana’s Cira Garcia Clinic, reserved for foreigners, breast
augmentation surgery costs $1,248 (940 euros), compared to around $6,000
in the United States, $4,350 in Britain and $2,500 in Mexico, according
to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and
“In this clinic we handle all types of medical specialties,” said deputy
director Maria Antonieta Gonzalez. And if an in-house expert is
unavailable, one can be borrowed from another hospital, she said.
There are plenty to choose from: Cuba has the highest number of doctors
per residents in the world — one per 148 inhabitants, according to the
World Health Organization.
In other countries, “what makes procedures expensive are the doctors,
but in Cuba, they are paid like everyone else,” Gonzalez said.
What adds to the cost however is the difficulty in obtaining medical
supplies, which cannot be bought in the nearby United States due to a
trade embargo in place for a half-century, Gonzalez said.
On any given day there are 2,000 patients at the Cira Garcia from around
the world. Most come from Latin America, but there are also patients
from places like Angola, Canada, Spain, and even Cuban-Americans from
Other Havana hospitals, like the Hermanos Ameijeiras and the Gonzalez
Coro, have opened “international rooms” to cash in on the influx of
Hotels are getting into the business too, with places like El Viejo y el
Mar (The Old Man and the Sea), Triton and Neptuno catering to medical
Aside from foreigners who pay in much-needed hard currency, thousands of
Venezuelans travel to Cuba each year for free medical treatment,
benefitting from an agreement that Chavez signed with Fidel Castro, then
president, in 2000.
There are 43 health centers in Cuba that cater to Venezuelans, with the
government in Caracas picking up the tab.
Source: “Cuba looks to medical tourism as income source – FRANCE 24” –