Wharton professor of health care management Patricia Danzon discusses Cuba's health care system.

Despite the decades-long U.S. trade embargo, Cuba’s health care system has thrived, building a record on major health care metrics that is comparable with not only other countries in the same per capita income bracket, but also with the U.S. Cuba has also made remarkable advances in biotechnology, especially in pediatric vaccines. As U.S.-Cuban ties improve, more Cuban doctors could migrate to the U.S. in the coming years. Already, large numbers of Cuban doctors and nurses also work in foreign countries, bringing in useful remittances.

Wharton professor of health care management Patricia Danzon, who recently returned from Cuba, appeared on the Knowledge at Wharton radio show to discuss the strides made by the island nation’s health care system. The Knowledge at Wharton show airs 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Eastern time Monday-Friday on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111.

In her study of Cuba’s health care system, Danzon found that the country’s record is impressive, particularly in the context of wealth indicators like per capita income, which is similar to countries like China. “It does remarkably well in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, and on those metrics it is comparable to the U.S.,” she said.

Danzon attributed Cuba’s progress in health care to its commitments during the 1959 Cuban Revolution to make education and health a priority as a universal right. Cuba has delivered on those commitments, and health care is universally available free of charge to everybody, she said.

“[Cuba] does remarkably well in terms of infant mortality and life expectancy, and on those metrics it is comparable to the U.S.”

Exporter of Medical Services

Cuba is also a big supplier of doctors and nurses to the rest of the world. That is akin to exports, although some of it is in the form of international aid, said Danzon. Some of the payments Cuban doctors receive from their services overseas come back as remittances, she added. “It is also a way of doing something in the trade area that is not hindered by the U.S. embargo.”

Professional services carried out by Cuban doctors and nurses — who number some 37,000 working in 77 countries — are generating foreign exchange to the tune of $8 billion a year, according to another recent Knowledge at Wharton report.

As U.S.-Cuba relations move closer to normalcy, more Cuban doctors could head to the U.S., although they also have opportunities in Latin American countries that face a shortage of physicians, said Danzon.

Biotech Advances

Danzon was also impressed by advances Cuba has made in biotechnology. The country has produced its own versions of critical medicines, such as pediatric vaccines to deal with infectious diseases, she said. Of late, Cuba’s biotech sector is also making progress in more advanced approaches using monoclonal antibodies and therapeutic vaccines, she added. Cuba exports some of those drugs to Asian and Latin American countries, but it has yet to penetrate Europe or the U.S., she noted.

One vaccine developed in Cuba, called CimaVax, promises to be a cheap, safe, effective and easy to administer treatment for lung cancer, according to a recent Knowledge at Wharton report. The vaccine has been developed by the Havana-based Center for Molecular Immunology, and is now being tested for the U.S. market by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, N.Y.