SAN ANTONIO – H-E-B School of Business and Administration professor Dr. David Vequist joined a team of American faculty at the beginning of the summer of 2016 on an 11-day trip to Cuba as part of an attempt by the United States government to normalize relations with the island nation.
Dr. Vequist said the trip took place during an interesting time for Cuba, which is starting to open itself up to American investments and experiment with capitalism after the United States recently lifted its decades long embargo on the country.
Dr. Vequist is the director of the Center for Medical Tourism Research at University of the Incarnate Word and is considered one of the leading experts in the world on the subject. He said many people don’t realize that Cuba is a destination for medical tourists, or those who travel to other countries for medical treatment.
“In fact, while I was there, there was some national and international news about a Canadian couple who decided to go to Cuba to receive health care. The reason is that they were able to get health care quicker than they would have in Canada,” Dr. Vequist said. “The couple decided to go to Cuba and receive the treatments they need at a very low cost and pay out of pocket.”
Medical tourists travel to Cuba for treatment of a variety of conditions, but Dr. Vequist said he suspects doctors are conducting procedures that are commonly available in the United States, just at a lower price. He said medical tourists also travel to the country for a wider range of pharmaceutical options.
“The reason is the Cuban government gets to develop their own model or system for how they determine whether or not drugs are safe or what drugs can go to market,” he said. “So it’s possible that, for example, if you had a certain type of cancer and there was a pharmaceutical that would help treat that, you may find that quicker in Cuba than you would perhaps in Europe or the United States.”
Dr. Vequist said there are suggestions that Cuba is excelling in the field of oncology and cancer treatment. He said the nation has made this area its focus following a directive from Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
“At one point in time, (Castro) said he wanted Cuba and the Cuban people to be the ones to cure cancer. So they have spent a lot of time, effort and money developing infrastructure around the treatment of cancer,” Dr. Vequist said.
The Cuban medical tourism industry benefits from the existence of several premiere hospitals, which Dr. Vequist said he and the team first learned of during the trip. The hospitals cater to upper-tier Cuban citizens, such as the politically elite and wealthy individuals, as well as foreign visitors.
“For those hospitals, from what we understand and from the evidence I collected when I was down in Cuba, it seems that the health care procedures are at a very high level, there’s good training and the Cuban doctors appear to be very good,” Dr. Vequist said.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the health care services available to lower-tier Cuban citizens. Dr. Vequist said the Cuban system is better than some poorer, third world countries, but does not meet the medical standards to which Americans are accustomed.
The group that made the trip to Cuba was comprised of mostly business professors from a variety of schools, including Texas A&M University and the University of Massachusetts, among others. Dr. Vequist said the group was very interested to learn more about the country’s recent shift in allowing capitalistic business ventures.
Most of the trip was spent in Havana, where the Cuban government has established “free enterprise zones,” which allow foreign companies to come in and have 100 percent ownership of a company. One such international company is Nestle, the multi-billion dollar Swiss company, which is trying to expand into Cuba.
Dr. Vequist said he was surprised to see how advanced the tourism industry was in Cuba, even though people have been traveling there from Canada, Europe and Latin America for years. Because of this, he said the Cuban people are very well versed in tourism. That wasn’t always the case, though, as until recently, Cubans weren’t allowed to approach or even talk to tourists.
While in Cuba, the American faculty were shown a video presentation created by a foreign consultant for the Cuban government to promote the country’s renewed interest in the tourism industry. Dr. Vequist said that was surprising.
“The Cuban government is planning to make the largest country in the Caribbean an even larger player in tourism. They are planning on literally hundreds of developments over the years in Cuba, particularly in terms of beachfront resorts,” he said.
Although he was halfway expecting it, Dr. Vequist said it was still surprising to see examples of the communist dictatorship on display, such as the lack of freedoms and the continual monitoring of Cuban citizens. He and the group observed representatives of the “Civilian Defense of the Revolution” in action. The representatives are essentially block spies that watch over an area for signs of dissent against the government. Dr. Vequist said that while the group had some free reign, he suspects that there was some chaperoning.
“We were also told by one of the people in the embassy to remember that at all times while we are in Cuba that anything that we say or do could potentially have consequences, and you're never alone,” he said.
Dr. Vequist and the other members of the group plan to pool their research together into one written piece, summarizing what they learned and observed in Cuba. He also plans to incorporate what he learned in Cuba into classrooms at UIW.
“My hope is that it helps make the learning and educational processes here at UIW and the H-E-B School of Business and Administration even better,” he said. “One of the things that I try to do continuously in my research is try to bring it back to the university to the benefit of my students. What I find is that when I’m involved in cutting-edge research … when I bring that into the classroom, it allows me to give stories and examples to the students that are from today’s headlines.”
Going forward, Dr. Vequist said he would love the opportunity to return to Cuba. He said the University of Havana expressed interest in becoming a partner university with UIW and establishing a lasting working relationship with the Center for Medical Tourism Research.