Would Americans travel to Cuba for health care?

Convenience and affordability are cited as appealing factors

As the United States moves to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, observers say there may be new opportunities for medical tourism—even if it does not strictly conform with the new regulations, William Neuman reports for the New York Times.

High-quality care in Cuba

Cuba invested heavily in health care after its revolution in 1959, and has gained a reputation for providing high-quality, inexpensive care. In fact, Cuba often "exports" its health care expertise to other developing countries in return for currency or commodities such as oil.

Now, with the Obama administration moving to relax travel and trade restrictions to the country, some see an opportunity for expanded medical tourism from the United States. Anuja Agrawal, CEO of Health Flights Solutions, a Florida-based medical tourism company, says there are many reasons why Cuba is an appealing medical-tourism destination.

"They've got extremely good health care," she says. Agrawal adds that the country's close proximity to the United States is also appealing. As to how Cuban providers feel about the prospect of an influx of American patients: "They're looking at it literally like winning the lottery," she says.

How D.C. hopes to become a medical tourism destination

Wink and a nod

Under the new travel rules, medical tourism from the United States to Cuba is still not allowed. A Treasury Department spokesperson said exceptions could be made on a case-by-case basis, but travelers looking to skirt the rules could be audited to make sure they are in compliance with law.

Observers note that even under the old rules people often traveled to Cuba under false pretenses. And Agrawal argues that even if medical tourism is not legal yet, she expects it will be soon. "I always think it's going to get looser and looser," she says of the regulations.

Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Florida-based Medical Tourism Association (MTA), agrees. "You're going to see a tremendous amount of movement, whether it's' travel agents or medical tourism facilitators, so once it does normalize, they can start sending patients over there," he says.

Currently, the most popular destinations for American medical tourism are Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore, and Costa Rica. And according to MTA, Americans most often travel for spinal procedures, cosmetic surgery, and cancer treatment.

Location, location? Most adults would consider medical tourism

Challenges

However, the Cuban health system is not without its challenges. Although Cuban citizens receive free care, prescriptions are paid for out-of-pocket, and many medicines are not available.  Moreover, many facilities may not have up-to-date equipment. And doctors in the country recently received a monthly salary increase to $67, up from $26.

Gail Reed, an American editor of a medical journal in Havana, hopes that new revenue from medical tourism is reinvested in the country's health system. "Any injection of real, new sources of funding into the health system would be a boon to Cuba and Cubans," she says (Neuman, New York Times, 2/17).

The takeaway: Eased travel restrictions could make Cuba an appealing medical tourism destination for Americans, but such travel is not yet legal without special authorization.


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