More than 240 Cuban health care professionals, nearly all of them doctors, have come to reside in Lancaster County since 2013, staff writer Jeff Hawkes reported in the Nov. 26 Sunday LNP. Lancaster is the lone Pennsylvania city and one of 11 cities nationwide where the nonprofit Church World Service, funded in part by government grants, resettles Cuban doctors. The influx is a result of a U.S. policy that, between 2006 and January 2017, encouraged Cuban medical professionals working internationally to make their way to the United States, where they are granted fast-track residency. The New York Times reported that more than 7,000 Cubans have taken advantage of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. That program was ended last January by the Obama administration, but dozens more doctors, already approved, are expected to come to Lancaster in 2018.
It is not a surprise that doctors would want to leave communist Cuba, where they are paid a pittance — $67 a month at most — and the best medical facilities are reserved for tourists.
Cuba ranks better than the United States when it comes to infant mortality rates, and its emphasis on preventive medicine has drawn praise in American medical journals.
But a 2013 article published by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting said that “the hospitals that ordinary Cubans go to are generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.” That article described one Havana teaching hospital as having cracked, unpainted walls; surgeries and wards that weren’t disinfected; bathrooms with no toilets and sinks; and an erratic water supply.
Moreover, Cuba has used its doctors as a revenue source, exporting them to other, often Latin American, countries, and paying them a fraction of the money the Cuban government gets for their service abroad.
So it’s understandable that these Cuban doctors would want to take advantage of the program created by the George W. Bush administration.
But, as a 2016 report on National Public Radio’s health and science program, “The Pulse,” pointed out, the hurdles they have to jump are high — and necessarily so, we’d add, as medical standards are literally a matter of life and death.
Like U.S. medical school graduates, they must pass a rigorous licensing exam, and they must complete a medical residency program of at least three years.
Only about half the graduates of overseas medical schools get placed in American residency programs, the NPR program reported.
Many Cuban doctors — as LNP’s Hawkes found here — end up in low-skill jobs.
Enter into this equation Dr. Daniel Weber, a retired Lancaster obstetrician/gynecologist and former director of obstetrical education at Lancaster General Health’s family medicine residency.
As Hawkes reported, Weber was dismayed to find Cuban doctors working here in menial jobs that didn’t make use of their expertise.
So he launched a program he calls the Latin American Doctor Association to help Cuban doctors get back into medicine.
Weber partnered with the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon, a nonprofit that teaches English to immigrants, to launch a free, weekly, 90-minute class to help prepare Cuban doctors for the grueling licensing exams.
We laud Weber for identifying a problem and seeking to fix it. He was described by Hawkes as an “energetic, voluble coach and mentor,” and by Aurora Bosch, 28, a Cuban doctor who came to Lancaster in 2015 with her husband and fellow doctor, Enmanuel Sotomayor, as “a personal cheerleader” who’s “always trying to push you to ramp it up.”
Weber, who’s 63, seems to us to be a living rejoinder to the ageists among us who think energy and tenacity are the preserves of youth.
He not only launched his Lancaster program, but got the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey to offer classes led by medical students and professors that will provide intensive test preparation to the Cuban doctors.
His character and determination to see the Cuban doctors succeed were revealed in an anecdote in Hawkes’ story.
Weber’s class of Cuban doctors had struggled on a practice test for the licensing exam.
“This is tough. It will make you feel a little unhappy. But I want you to be encouraged. Because you’ve got the stuff. You can do it,” he said.
The Cuban doctors working with Weber are fortunate to have his help. Because, as Hawkes reported, they face not only a language gap, but the reality that the Cuban medical schools where they trained may have been behind in technology and methodology compared to U.S. medical schools.
We wish these doctors, who are facing tough odds, well. They’ll be all the more valuable if they succeed in spite of those odds.
Pennsylvania is facing a serious physician shortage. According to a 2015 study by the General Assembly’s Joint State Government Commission, 27 percent of Pennsylvania’s active physicians are age 60 or older, and 51 percent are age 50 or older.
The commonwealth is going to require more primary care physicians in the years to come, especially in small towns and rural areas. So we need all the good doctors we can get.
If doctor’s coats don’t end up fitting them, we hope these Cuban doctors — now our fellow community members — can find a medical-related role that will put their knowledge to good use.
In the meantime, we are grateful to Dr. Weber and the Literacy Council, as well as to Church World Service, for the help they are providing to these Cuban doctors and, by extension, to our community.
To borrow from an old public service commercial, a medical mind is a terrible thing to waste.