A medical school in Cuba trains doctors to serve the world’s neediest

American journalist and Havana resident Gail Reed spoke at TEDMED 2014 about a Cuban medical school that trains doctors from low-income countries who pledge to serve communities like their own all over the world. She talked with TEDMED about the Latin American Medical School and its contributions to global health.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope it will have?

Ridden by Ebola today, other emerging infections tomorrow, and always by chronic diseases—our world needs strong health systems, staffed by well-trained and dedicated people. And their education must be the result of enlightened decisions from policymakers who put health first, learning from the likes of the Latin American Medical School to make these new health professionals the rule, not the exception. Now is the time for medical educators to make the changes needed to give us the kind of physicians we need. And to bring the profession into the movement for universal health care, bringing doctors to the forefront with other health workers. To walk the walk.

Gail Reed at TEDMED 2014

Gail Reed at TEDMED 2014 Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

I hope that people seeing the talk will be inspired to act to support the Latin American Medical School graduates through our organization, MEDICC. I hope policymakers will take the School’s courageous experiment to heart, and then take another look at their budgets and find more for health and medical school scholarships; and that governments will find a way to employ these new doctors in the public health sector, in places where they are most needed. I hope the graduates will never ever wonder about their importance to global health, for they and others like them are vital to turning around our global health crisis, in which one billion people still have no health care—millions, even, in the USA. And finally, I hope we will recognize Cuba’s contribution to global health, including the nearly 500 nurses and doctors on the front lines against Ebola in West Africa, as an example of what is possible and as a challenge to others to do more. Today, Cuba has over 50,000 health professionals serving in 66 countries, 65% of them women. Since 1963, 77,000 of them have given their services—and some their lives—in Africa.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

As a journalist in Cuba, I realized I was witnessing an extraordinary experiment in health solidarity with the world’s poorest people: The thousands of scholarships offered by Havana’s Latin American Medical School to students from low-income families in 123 countries, who pledge to serve in communities poor like their own. I was struck by the fact that a country, an institution, believed these young people could themselves be the answer to the call for doctors where there were none. And I was astounded, too, that this audacious experiment has remained essentially an untold story. Audacity is right at home on TEDMED’s stage, so it seemed the perfect opportunity. I also thought the TEDMED audience would ‘get it,’ the urgency and responsibility we all have to support these new doctors, who represent the potential of imagination when commitment drives it into bold action.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

The talk’s legacy is in the hands of thousands of young doctors continuing to graduate from the School in Havana, who are bringing health care to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Their school and their example should remind us that this is one world, with one fate and one humanity, and that the odds are there to beat: Health for all is possible.  

Want to learn more about Gail and her efforts? Visit her speaker page on TEDMED.com.

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