Cuban doctors make a difference in rural areas

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Durban - People in rural areas have benefited from the health cooperation agreement between South Africa and Cuba.

Due to the deployment of Cuban doctors in rural areas, patients are receiving primary health care. Reporting of illnesses, especially tuberculosis, by the doctors means the Department of Health is getting more accurate statistics.

This is just a few of the benefits that were highlighted when the two countries celebrated the 15th anniversary of the agreement in Durban over the past week.

Through this collaboration, 282 medical students from poor backgrounds successfully completed their medical studies. Just over 400 South African students are still studying in Cuba.

The first set of Cuban doctors arrived in 1996 to help government deal with their issues of skills shortage in state hospitals. Around 460 Cuban doctors were assigned to work in South Africa.

There are also exchanges between medical academics, and expanding this relationship is something both countries have been looking into.

The two nations also discussed taking more South African students to Cuba for training and increasing teaching platforms.

Celebrations aside, representatives from both countries carefully examined and assessed the programme, with the intention of making improvements.

Moeketsi Modisenyane, International Health Liaison from the national Health Department, said there has been very positive feedback from provinces in which Cuban doctors work.

"Hospital CEOs, patients, and communities have always praised the work ethic and attitudes of Cuban doctors. In fact, some hospitals have already been asking when the next batch of Cuban doctors will arrive," said Modisenyane.

He added that the South African medical system also offer doctors plenty of experience.

Vice Chancellor of the University of Medical Sciences in Havana, Dr Jorge Gonzalez, lauded former Presidents Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro for engineering the partnership.

"The relationship between South Africa and Cuba is a very historical one. Our blood carries African blood. We feel a part of Africa. Our Cuban doctors will not deny their Cuban heritage but they also feel South African and will fight for the health of the people," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said it is important that health is not viewed in an isolated way. He said education is vital for well being.

The Cubans believe that education and preventative measures should come first, a view that that Deputy Minister of Health, Gwen Ramokgopa, concurred with during her address given last Thursday, when 25 doctors graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Ramokgopa called for the medical graduates trained in Cuba to be in the forefront of improving the health outcomes in South Africa. She asked the doctors to also promote a preventative approach to healthcare as they were trained in a country that champions a preventative, rather than curative, healthcare system.

"People need to be educated, only then they can speak up and ask for proper health care services. People need to be educated about diseases," said Gonzalez.

The programme has come a long way and has several benefits, but Gonzalez believes that much more can be done.

He said specialised doctors must be also included in the exchange between Cuba and South Africa.

"We (Cuba) need to send more medical doctors in different fields, more pathologists, more physiotherapists," said Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, the Health Department has reached an agreement with universities to increase the intake of doctors. Wits University has started by increasing their annual intake from 80 to 120 students.