IPO News

Students from the UMass Public Health in Cuba program

Comparing Health Care Delivery in Cuba

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

How do you earn a semester’s worth of credits for less than the cost of in-state tuition? If you’re a member of the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences program, you might do it by going to Havana, Cuba.

UMass Public Health in Cuba, a new program launched in February 2019, offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the island nation’s unique health care system while learning a new language. The first iteration of the program was supported by a successful grant through the Marlene M. Johnson Innovation Challenge. 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. 

Students travel in groups of up to 20 with four UMass faculty members, traveling to Havana for three-week blocks. Each block comprises a different UMass public health course. This intensive model lets students focus deeply on one topic at a time. Courses change depending on the faculty associated with the program. In spring 2019, courses included Community Development and Health, Global Women’s Health, Environmental Controversies, and Food Toxicology.

Alongside their public health courses, students also take a semester-long course in intensive Spanish especially for health care professionals. Equivalent to two semesters of Spanish at UMass Amherst, the course is taught by a University of Havana faculty member and is connected to a service-learning project allowing students to become more keenly engaged in the community. 

Senior Lecturer and Public Health Sciences Undergraduate Program Director Gloria DiFulvio coordinated the program’s design with the International Programs Office. DiFulvio says the program provides unique opportunities for undergraduates—whether it be traveling to Cuba (a recent development), or spending time abroad with their professors. “Cuba is like a hidden country. It has been difficult for U.S. citizens to travel there yet we have a lot to learn from their health care system,” she says. “The sense of community in Havana is really strong. When it comes to health, the attitude is that health care is a human right. It is not dependent on employment as it is in the U.S.” 

DiFulvio says this attitude is what has allowed Cuba’s public health care program to thrive. All Cuban citizens have access to health care free of cost; the only expenses they incur are for medicine, and even those are cheaper than in the United States. The Cuban health care system supports an infant mortality rate and a life expectancy rate comparable to those of the United States. 

These factors make study of health care in countries with markedly different health care than the U.S. an important addition to the studies of public health majors. “When studying public health, it is helpful to obtain a global perspective,” DiFulvo says. “Students will benefit by studying health and health care in different cultures and political systems to gain an understanding of how health and justice play out in those countries. 

The Cuba program is bringing 16 new students to the island in the spring of 2020.