Published: Oct. 27, 2015

MSU first to solidify medical elective in Cuba for students

Contact(s): William Cunningham College of Osteopathic Medicine office: 616-340-4293, Sarina Gleason Media Communications office: (517) 355-9742

Michigan State University medical students will be the first from the United States to participate in a clinical experience that will allow them to step foot inside Cuba’s hospitals, learn about the country’s medical system and put the experience toward their education.

With the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, MSU was the first to solidify an agreement with the Cuban government and develop a new, for-credit clinical course for students.

Beginning in April 2016, 16 osteopathic and human medicine students will take part in the new elective that will expose these future physicians to a health care system that has been a leader in identifying the social factors around disease and prevention when it comes to its public health.

“MSU has always been good neighbors with Cuba and has offered cultural-type courses to students for the last 14 years,” said William Cunningham, assistant dean for the College of Osteopathic Medicine in West Michigan and one of the thought leaders behind the new elective. “This is a first, though, for American medical students to be able to walk the halls of three of Cuba’s main hospitals in Havana and receive credit for the experience.”

Partnering hospitals include Calixto Garcia, the oldest general teaching hospital, Hospital Pediatrico Docente Centro Habana, specializing in pediatrics, and Hospital Materno Ramon Gonzalez Coro, an obstetrics and gynecology specialty facility.

According to Cunningham, Cuba boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the Western Hemisphere. According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, in 2014, Cuba averaged 4.7 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 6.17 in the United States. Globally, Monaco ranked the lowest, averaging about 1.81 infant deaths per 1,000 births.

“If you’re a high-risk pregnant woman, the government will help move you and your entire family next to the hospital until the baby is delivered,” Cunningham said. “In Cuba, everyone has a right to health care. That means all the basic and necessary care is covered.”

The new elective will take place the first two weeks in April every year and is open to fourth-year students in both the Colleges of Osteopathic and Human Medicine through an application process. Students will learn about community medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatric and geriatric care, as well as participate in rotations within various departments in the hospitals. Currently, 30 students have already applied for next year’s elective.

“These students will study the Cuban health system and have the ability to compare it to the U.S.,” Cunningham said. “We want them to understand that even with all of the advances in medical technology here in America, Cuba’s medical system is grounded in primary care and public health and they’ve truly been able to track the health statistics of their population with a lot less.”

Marcia Garcia, a general surgeon in Cuba and an adjunct professor in MSU’s Institute of International Health, will teach students throughout the two-week elective. Additional course creators, Gary Willyerd, an associate dean in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Rene Hinojosa, a professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction, along with Cunningham, will accompany and instruct the students as well.

“Dr. Garcia is an excellent clinician and our students will learn firsthand how Cuban physicians use their diagnostic acumen to deliver high quality care to their patients,” Cunningham said. “This, along with 30 years of collective teaching experience in international health from Drs. Willyerd and Hinojosa, will further enhance the student experience.”

Course creators William Cunningham (pictured far right), Rene Hinojosa (immediate left) and Gary Willyerd (far left) pose with the chef of a Cuban cafe during one of their visits to the country. All three will lead medical students in MSU's first for-credit, clinical elective in Cuba. Courtesy photo.

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