About Traveling to Cuba for Health Reasons
Cuba is cashing in on a long-standing trend toward providing health care to so-called health tourists. The combination of relatively low cost, quality and sometimes pioneering care, and exotic tropical locales, draws visitors seeking health care.
A Solid History
A nation that prides itself on its science and education, Cuba already had excellent doctors and hospitals before the Cuban Revolution of 1959. After a decline in the 1960s, Cuba's health-care system improved to cement itself as a leader in both quality of care and special treatments. The attraction for health tourists began in the 1980s. After the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost important financial backing, Cuba's leaders began to see health tourism as a way to make up for the losses.
A Growing Trend
The number of health tourists coming to Cuba grows roughly 20 percent a year, earning about $40 million a year for the Cuban economy. Almost 20,000 tourist patients visited in 2006. The number of Americans getting care there is growing, too, especially after Michael Moore's documentary "Sicko" showed Americans visiting Cuba for treatment.
Two Types of Care
The health care Cubans themselves receive, while competent and free, is generally not the same as health tourists get. Cuba operates special hospitals solely for the treatment of foreigners and diplomats. Health care is not usually free for foreigners.
Tourists from Latin America, United States, and Europe--from at least 38 countries--come for a wide range of conditions. They include rare eye problems, neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease and psoriasis. Surgeries for tumors and the heart are common. Orthopedics and cosmetic surgery are popular. The drug and alcohol addiction recovery programs have attracted the rich and famous, including Argentina's soccer hero Diego Maradona.
How It's Done
Cubanacan Tourism and Health runs the country's health tourism industry. The prices charged are at least a third lower than in the United States. The hard currency health tourists pay helps fund the health care for ordinary Cubans.
Only a tourist visa is generally required. Americans have a less direct path because of the U.S. trade policy toward Cuba. U.S. citizens either secure U.S. government approval or reach Cuba from a third location such as Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. Cuban immigration authorities don't stamp U.S. passports so that Americans can keep their health tourism private.
Payment is usually in cash since the goal is obtaining hard currency. Also, treatment locations are generally limited to tourist-only hospitals. According to the U.S. Department of State, some medications might be unavailable in Cuba, so travelers should bring any prescribed medicine. Having the medicine in its original marked container with a copy of the prescription and a letter from the prescribing physician can help avoid any problems at the border.
Steve Anderson has over 15 years of writing experience that includes work in marketing and advertising and a stint in the Associated Press. He has written novels, short stories and screenplays. Anderson also holds a master's in history and was a Fulbright Fellow in Germany. He lives in Portland, Ore.