UMass Amherst Launching New Program to Study Public Health in Cuba

Kalpen Trivedi
Kalpen Trivedi, executive director, International Programs Office
Marjorie Aelion
Marjorie Aelion, dean, School of Public Health and Health Sciences

AMHERST, Mass. - The University of Massachusetts Amherst will offer a new pilot program in the fall of 2017 that allows students, faculty and staff to travel to Cuba to study that nation’s public health system. The new program is a collaboration involving UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences (SPHHS) and International Programs Office (IPO) with Cuban education and healthcare organizations.

Funding for the program includes $20,000 from The Marlene M. Johnson Innovation Challenge grant that notes the program design strongly aligns with the broader goals of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative to increase the annual number of U.S. students studying in Latin America and the Caribbean to 100,000 and bring 100,000 students from that region to the United States by 2020. The new pilot program will also receive financial support from program fees and scholarships from the university.

The UMass Amherst Public Health in Cuba program will offer 15 students an opportunity to study Cuba’s healthcare system beginning in the fall of 2017. Cuba’s public healthcare system focuses on prevention and population health, and Cuba has many integrated community health centers. Cuba boasts a number of distinctions, including a near universal vaccination program, low infant mortality and morbidity, and a high number of doctors and dentists per capita. With the U.S. involved in a debate over the nature and future of its own healthcare system, Cuba offers students an opportunity to re-engage a strained inter-American relationship and to draw on knowledge produced in the Western Hemisphere to address public healthcare issues facing the Americas and the world, according to Kalpen Trivedi, executive director of IPO.

In addition, Trivedi, who was recently in Cuba as part of a multi-university delegation sponsored by the Institute for International Education, says,  “This new program will tap into the rich potential for educational and cultural engagement present in Cuba. The program is an example of innovative curricular design that integrates a full semester overseas into the SPHHS’s regular academic offerings, and as such, will also provide a diverse student body to access this opportunity.”

Four courses will be taught in Cuba by UMass Amherst faculty members. Each course will be a three-week block of intensive study. The public health courses – “Global Issues in Women’s Public Health,” “Reproductive Justice,” “Global Public Health Policy,” and “Cancer and the Environment” – have been adapted for practical and theoretical issues to a specifically Cuban context, incorporating visits and lectures in Havana.

Marjorie Aelion, dean of the SPHHS, visited Cuba in 2011 as an invited member of an American Public Health Association (APHA) delegation. She says, “Cuba’s focus on community-based health and prevention will provide UMass Amherst students with a wonderful juxtaposition to the U.S.-based focus on delivery of medical services to the individual and the current debate over health insurance reform. The new Cuba program is an important addition to the SPHHS’s campus-based educational programs, and allows students to study and live outside the U.S. in a limited-resourced country that has made a concerted effort and improved several important public health indicators.”

The students will also take a “Spanish for Healthcare Professionals” course that will be taught by faculty from the Universidad de La Habana, the host institution in Cuba. In addition to the course work, students will also take part in homestays with Cuban families and service learning projects.

Participating students will be able to take advantage of the wide range of perspectives and viewpoints on public and community health in Havana through integrating visits to healthcare institutions into their regular course curriculum, visits that include ENSAP (the National School of Public Health), the Latin American School of Medicine and the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. They will also learn to assess and analyze “different similarities” between Cuban and U.S. healthcare systems through lectures by Cuban academics and professionals on topics such as the politics of public health in Cuba since the Revolution, family medicine and community medicine risk factors, research on genetic disorders, and the Cuban medical biotechnology sector.

Students participating in the program will earn 12 public health credits, plus six additional credits from a required Spanish for Healthcare Professionals course. Though public health majors are the program’s target audience, UMass Amherst officials plan to open enrollment to students in the College of Nursing in the near future.

UMass Amherst officials say they expect UMass Amherst Public Health in Cuba to be an enriching international educational experience for student participants who desire to spend a full semester abroad and also expect it to function as a model that will influence study abroad programming on the UMass Amherst campus generally. Trivedi notes, “Integrating full-semester international programs taught predominantly by UMass Amherst faculty is key to our curricular integration strategy,” and further such opportunities will be forthcoming across other schools and colleges of the university.