Cuba-SA doctor programme downsized, ‘not suspended’

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After 22 years and billions of rand spent, the national Department of Health has taken a decision to downsize its Cuba-South Africa doctor programme, not suspend it for a three-year period, as previously reported, writes the Sunday Tribune.

Although it has been reported that the programme will be terminated for a three- year period, Department of Health representative Gavin Steele is quoted as saying it would continue, but the number of students sent to Cuba for training each year would decrease. “The programme will still be carried out, especially to promote primary health care, which has shown to have great successes when the students return,” said Steele.

The report says the programme had faced criticism over the years with some calling for its termination. Critics, including the Democratic Alliance (DA), and those fighting to secure places at local medical schools, have often highlighted that it was one of the reasons that the department had not increased the intake of medical students at South African universities.

The lack of facilities and places available at local institutions led to students being sent to study in Cuba. They spend five years in medical school in Cuba before returning here to finish their training, which takes between 12 and 18 months. In KwaZulu-Natal, a final batch of 262 students will return from Cuba in June to complete their sixth year of medical school, the report says.

The decision to downsize the programme was welcomed by the DA’s Patricia Kopane, who said it was a “waste of money”. Kopane said the cost to train a doctor in Cuba was R1.8m and another R500,000 for the extra two years in South Africa (a total of about R2.3m) compared with about R1.5m to train a student doctor in South Africa in a shorter time. “The rest of the money could be used to improve our medical schools because we are heavily under-resourced. This is why we are unable to take in more students,” said Kopane.

The report says the DA’s KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson on health, Dr Imran Keeka, agreed. “It has cost us billions of rand over the years. This money is in the pockets of Cubans rather than in the local economy. The cost of local training is cheaper and the money could be used for private medical schools. Thousands of jobs could be created in and around these private medical schools as well as opportunities for large numbers of small business and entrepreneurs,” said Keeka.

Keeka said the provincial Health Department would only be able to ensure the placement of 90 out of the 262 medical students returning from Cuba to KwaZulu-Natal this year. “The rest will be a burden on other provinces and their institutions. There is also no proper budgetary allocation from KZN Health. When these students enter their internship training, the department will have to scramble to find money that it already does not have to maintain levels of care,” said Keeka.

Martin Veller, chair of the South African Committee of Medical Deans, said 720 students would return from the programme this year and another 800-plus students would return next year. “The biggest challenge would be to integrate these students into our medical schools at such large numbers. There are concerns about whether we will be ready to handle these numbers,” Veller is quoted in the report as saying.

He said the programme had its successes over the years and students who returned from Cuba had integrated well into the health-care system, especially at primary health-care level. He said a delegation had returned from Cuba last week after holding a successful meeting with Cuban officials about how the programme would be handled going forward.

Sunday Tribune report

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