They get cut-rate treatment; Havana gets hard currency
Many Americans are now visiting Cuba to get
their nose done, breast jobs, knees fixed, vitiligo treatment, alcohol
and drug rehab, laser eye surgery, etc. Numbers are increasing at
about 20% per year.
HAVANA -- While waiting for their luggage at Havana's posh Jose Marti
airport, arriving foreign visitors can hardly miss the barrage of
advertising for Cuba's hot vacation option: hospitalization.
A closed-circuit television perched over the baggage carousel shows
doctors in white coats greeting tourists at the door of the Cira Garcia
Central Clinic in Havana. Technicians fuss over patients strapped to
sleek high-tech imaging machines, laboratory workers peer expertly at
blood samples, and recuperating patients lift weights under the watchful
eye of personal trainers.
Forget lazy days on the white-sand beaches and sightseeing in Cuba's
Spanish colonial cities.
Tourists -- including a growing number of Americans -- are flocking to
this socialist island to have their noses reshaped, their breasts
lifted, their knees replaced or to find help for chronic problems, from
neurological damage to psoriasis.
"We hear it really works," said Nicholas Herve, a French
tourist who waited with his 15-year-old daughter, Aurelie, recently for
a vitiligo treatment.
The disease, which destroys the skin's pigment and leaves white spots,
didn't respond well to ultraviolet light treatments at home, Herve said.
He hopes his daughter is cured by Cuba's treatment, which is derived
from human placental cells and costs the family $450 and three days'
worth of visits to an outpatient clinic.
The family decided the cross-Atlantic trip was worth it. "In other
parts of the world they don't know how to cure this vitiligo,"
Herve said. "Here I hope we'll get rid of it for good."
Most health-care tourists to Cuba come seeking cures they don't believe
they can find elsewhere. Others are looking for cut-rate deals on
plastic surgery or weight-loss programs.
Some, tired of cost-cutting HMO health-care back home, simply like the
personal attention possible on an island with one of the world's highest
concentrations of doctors.
"There's a lot of tenderness and human warmth and concern here in
Cuba, and that in itself helps a lot," says Rosa Maria Medina, a
spokeswoman for the International Center for Neurological Restoration,
one of Cuba's tourist hotspots.
"I think that in developed countries -- and we get a lot of people
from developed countries -- there are great medical facilities,"
said Dr. Ramon Prado, the director of Cira Garcia, a Cuban clinic that
serves primarily tourists.
"But people who come here are looking for another option, for a
solution they couldn't find at home," he said. "They know
there are good doctors here and 40 years of development of a strong
Cuba, despite its famed legions of highly trained doctors, is no
health-care paradise. Most hospital facilities for Cubans have peeling
paint, missing light bulbs, and electrical and water outages.
Doctors, short on supplies, are forced to reuse latex gloves, and
patients bring their own sheets for beds.
Medicines are scarce, in part because of the long-standing United States
embargo against the island.
The island's tourist facilities, however, are another world. At Cira
Garcia, a tidy clinic adjoining Havana's wealthy Miramar neighborhood,
silk plants line the newly painted corridors, and bright blue and yellow
signs point to the well-stocked pharmacy, the ultrasound room, the X-ray
Nurses stroll to piped-in music, and the receptionist offers brochures
in Spanish, French and English.
The center, which attracted nearly 1,300 foreign health-care tourists as
inpatients last year, and thousands more as outpatients, offers
everything from herniated disk repair -- $4,570 including anesthesia and
two-week hospital stay -- to laser eye surgery and liposuction.
Patients who pay in dollars enjoy "all the comforts of the most
modern clinics," note the brochures, including cable television,
air conditioning and 24-hour international fax service.
On average, prices are about a third lower than in the United States,
Cira Garcia's most sought-after service, he said, is plastic surgery.
About 80 percent of patients come from Latin America and the Caribbean,
but the facility has attracted clients from as far away as Japan and
Prado claims a 98 percent satisfaction rate from patient surveys last
year. But perhaps the better indicator is return patients: 31 percent of
the clinic's clients last year were repeat customers.
"The best promotion we have is our patients," he said.
TREND REPORTEDLY GROWING
According to Cubanacan Tourism and Health, the umbrella organization
charged with promoting Cuba's health tourism facilities, the island last
year attracted 3,500 health tourists, a number that is growing by 20
percent a year.
Thousands of other tourists also saw the inside of Cuban health
facilities for treatment of everything from bad sunburns to broken legs.
This March alone, U.S. tourists accounted for a third of the emergency
cases at Cira Garcia, Prado said.
For health-care tourists, the island's top attractions are its treatment
program to slow the progress of retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary
disease that eventually causes total blindness; its center for the
treatment of vitiligo and psoriasis; its neurological restoration center
for treatment of trauma victims and sufferers of strokes and diseases
like Parkinson's; and its drug and alcohol addiction recovery programs,
which have attracted the rich and famous, including Diego Maradona,
Argentina's soccer star.
"People with a lot of money are looking for our services,"
said Dr. Carlos Leyvsa, vice president of Cubanacan Tourism and Health.
"For them it's not an issue of price but of quality."
At the island's neurological restoration center, doctors are using fetal
stem cells -- controversial technology in the United States -- to try to
restore brain and nerve function in victims of accidents and in
sufferers of diseases such as Parkinson's.
Patients are assigned multidisciplinary teams of experts, from
psychologists to language rehabilitation specialists, as well as their
own physical therapist.
After a week of consultation, patients undergo at least 28 days of
treatment and rehabilitation, though the majority of patients stay three
to six months, or as long as a year, Medina said.
FIVE WEEKS FOR $11,000
The program's cost, which averages about $11,000 for five weeks, is half
that of comparable neurological rehabilitation programs in the U.S.,
Medina said, and 80 percent of the hospital's 252 beds are usually
Right now the hospital has one U.S. patient, she said, but Americans
rank 19th on the list of most common nationalities at the facility.
"Most people come to Cuba looking for hope they haven't found in
other places," Medina said.
At the vitiligo and psoriasis center, which treats 80 foreign patients a
month, doctors claim an 84 percent success rate in treatment of vitiligo
and 78 percent for psoriasis, a chronic skin disease.
Treatment, much of it done at home with Cuban-developed products, can
take two years, but if the program is followed to the letter, some
patients may be cured, said the center's director, Dr. Miyares Cao.
"In other parts of the world they treat these diseases but don't
cure them," Cao said. "We offer a cure."
Letters in the clinic's registry book from Mexican, Spanish, Guatemalan
and Japanese patients suggest that while most are still waiting for
results, some have seen progress.
'I SEE MYSELF CURED'
"I look in the mirror and see myself cured and more handsome than
ever," writes Pepe Gower of Spain, a vitiligo sufferer.
"I thought I would go back to my country and not have even one
spot, and that has not been the case," a 9-year-old Guatemalan
patient writes in another letter. "But even so the spots are being
cured and already there are very few."
Cuba's growing health tourism effort has roused bitter reproach from the
nation's critics, who accuse the regime of President Fidel Castro of
creating an apartheid system of health care, in which foreigners -- and
Cuban party elite -- get top-class service while average Cubans must
make do with dilapidated facilities, outdated equipment and meagerly
In 1994, Dr. Hilda Molina, the founder of the International Center for
Neurological Restoration and a pioneer in the treatment of Parkinson's
disease with fetal stem cells, quit her job in protest of a government
demand that she boost the number of foreign clients paying in dollars.
Molina has since refused to do the brain surgery that made her famous
and has returned the medals Castro awarded her for her work.
OFFICIALS DEFEND SYSTEM
Cuban officials defend the system, saying the $20 million or more that
foreign health-care tourists bring to the island each year goes to
bolster cash-starved Cuba's general finances and support the overall
state health system.
"Health care (for Cubans) is free here, and that's expensive. This
(foreign) money helps Cubans," Prado said.
"Foreign money pays the bills for research," added Cao, of the
vitiligo center. "It's very useful."
Some question this system, mostly Cuban Americans, but in reality the
Cubans now live just about as long as Americans. Go see for
For more information on healthcare services for
foreigners in Cuba, you can visit their web site
http://www.cirag.cu/en/ , Facebook
you can try contacting the clinic in person at:
20 No. 4101 esq. a Av. 41, Miramar, Playa.
Phone number: (53) (7) 204 2811
If you decide to visit Cuba for medical issues. We can
help you get there. please contact us.