June 21, 2019

Their Hearts Are in Havana

UMass Amherst public health students seize the chance to live and learn in Cuba

For Julia Taylor ’19, who graduated from UMass Amherst in May with a degree in public health sciences, some of the most eye-opening lessons in her undergraduate education came from a surprising source—an inside look at Cuba’s socialized health care system.

“In Cuba, they have a strong focus on preventive care,” says Taylor, who is studying to become a family nurse practitioner. “There I learned that you don’t always have to take the fanciest route to solve a health care problem. Sometimes listening to a patient and getting to the root of the problem is the most effective thing you can do.”

Taylor and nine other UMass undergraduates were the first to have the rare opportunity to study in Cuba through a groundbreaking program launched in the spring by the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences and the International Programs Office. The program is a collaboration with Cuban education and health care organizations.

Four UMass faculty members instructed the students in intensive three-week rotations in Havana. Associate Professor Laura Vandenberg taught “Controversies in Environmental Health,” which looked at such topics as pesticides (seldom used in Cuba) and fluoride safety.

Cuba’s preventive focus has resulted in some impressive health care outcomes.

Vandenberg says that the intimate learning environment and the slower pace of life without reliable internet led to strong connections between UMass faculty and students in Cuba. She relished that closeness along with the opportunity to explore Cuba’s community-based health system and consider its potential applications in the U.S.

The UMass students learned that family doctors in Cuba make house calls, where they can get to know their patients and observe how they live, such as where they store their food, where the children sleep, and what exercise people get. Students were impressed to see that pregnant women in Cuba receive 14 prenatal care visits, which include dental, nutritional, and psychiatric care. 

We can indeed learn from the Cuban health care system, says Gloria DiFulvio, the undergraduate program director for public health sciences. DiFulvio’s resolve to bring public health students to Cuba made the program a reality, even in the face of a postponement caused by Hurricane Irma and political complications. She points out that despite a lack of resources in Cuba and much lower health care spending, the country’s preventive focus has resulted in some impressive health care outcomes, including lower rates of infant mortality and lower rates of HIV/AIDS infections than in the U.S.

Like many international educational programs, the UMass Public Health in Cuba itinerary included home stays, field trips, language classes, and service learning—but its focus was unique. Says Taylor, “This was all new, all amazing. It opened my mind to how others live and the importance of public health in Latin America and around the world.”