By Jessica Canchola
The announced reopening of economic and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba last December wasn’t just good news for American multinational corporations eager to tap into Cuban markets, or Cuban Americans anxious to reunite with family. Medical tourism agencies like Global HealthQuest and the Medical Tourist Association were also elated. If Washington continues to relax travel restrictions, American medical tourism to Cuba could become a reality in the near future. On the surface, this possibility may seem like a win-win for American patients and Cuban healthcare providers, but if not handled correctly, such an arrangement may prove to be a short term solution to problems in both countries that will only be exacerbated over time.
Medical tourists are individuals that travel to foreign countries to receive affordable or experimental medical treatment not offered in their home country. Each year, thousands of uninsured, underinsured, and chronically ill Americans fly to places like the United Kingdom, Israel, and Singapore to receive care ranging from affordable cosmetic surgery to cutting edge cancer treatments not approved by the FDA.
Cuba has become an enticing destination for medical tourists from countries outside the United States. Many people flock to the island to receive experimental treatment barred by their home country’s more stringent regulations. Cuba’s healthcare system also owes its popularity to the relatively low cost of care it is able to offer medical tourists visiting the country to receive treatment. Furthermore, for-profit medical centers have been established to treat such patients that are separate from those used to treat Cubans.
That being said, the facilities for these two separate groups of patients in Cuba are anything but equal. The clinics for Cuban citizens often run on antiquated equipment and rely on humanitarian aid from various external sources to modernize, and even worse, some of that aid goes toward subsidizing the costs of medications many Cubans already have a difficult time affording. In other words, the same low costs drawing medical tourists to Cuba are also preventing Cuban citizens from being able to fully receive the care they need.
If medical tourism from the United States becomes popular, the schism between the quality of care and accessibility for medical tourists Cubans alike will surely widen. The growth in demand of for-profit treatment from American medical tourists would naturally incentivize the Cuban government to divert its time and resources away from Cuban-serving facilities and toward those facilities catering to medical tourists because of a larger gain in revenue. Although such revenue gains could potentially be used to update equipment and subsidize the costs of medications, they could just as easily be reallocated to another area or poured right back into revenue-generating facilities. The decision would be almost entirely up to Raul Castro.
To be clear, American medical tourism doesn’t just have the potential to hurt Cuban citizens. The need for millions of Americans to fly to foreign countries to receive the care they need indicates a failure of the U.S. health care system to provide for many Americans who may slip through the cracks. Allowing our health care system to remain as it is now is unacceptable. Before policy makers in Washington authorize medical tourism to Cuba and indirectly perpetuate its practice, they need to also make a bigger commitment to fix the problems in our broken health care system so fewer Americans feel the need to fly halfway across the world to receive the treatment necessary for survival.