Cuba in Timor Leste

Medical Education Cooperation with East Timor Expanded

By Conner Gorry

Known as the ‘first independent state of the millennium,’ the island nation of East Timor will celebrate four years of independence on May 20th. Since 2004 – nearly half the young country’s life - Cuba has had a medical cooperation program with East Timor that was recently expanded to include a greater presence of Cuban doctors in-country and additional medical scholarships for East Timorese students.

Providing education and training for human resources for health is a top priority in a country that was left with only 35 physicians after violent clashes in August 1999 displaced 75% of the population.[1] In response, Cuba offered over 800 full scholarships for young East Timorese to study at Havana’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM). The first phase of the scholarship program is well under way, with 361 students from East Timor already matriculating in the medical school.[2] The balance began arriving this January to begin the pre-med bridging course, the preparatory course to the standard six-year curriculum (see Spotlight, MEDICC Review Vol. VII, No.8, 2005).

“There are so few doctors in my country and I want to help” said arriving student Délio da Silva about why he decided to apply for an ELAM scholarship. Prospective students are chosen from the 13 districts throughout East Timor, to promote more equitable distribution of the future MDs. The hope is that these students will return to their country to help alleviate the human resources for health crisis there, since ELAM students commit to practicing medicine in underserved communities upon graduation.

Creating a sustainable health system where East Timorese provide health services for their own is the long-term strategy, says Dr. Francisco Medina, head of Cuba’s Comprehensive Health Program (CHP) in the small island nation. There are currently 182 Cuban professionals and technicians working in East Timor under the medical cooperation project.

“We’re the first to get rid of the desk separating doctors from their patients, and many times the first to see them not just as cases, but as human beings,” Dr. Medina told MEDICC Review. This humanist approach is the philosophy underscoring medical education in Cuba and is the foundation for East Timor’s future doctors.

Notes & References
  1. Source: East Timor Health Sector Situation Report, January-June 2000, World Health Organization, 2000. According to Cuban officials in East Timor, there are currently 45 doctors there, only 26 of whom work in the public sector.
  2. The students are distributed as follows: 27 in 1st year, 15 in 2nd year; and 319 in 3rd year.