Global Forum for Health Research, Havana, Cuba



Global Forum for Health Research, Havana, Cuba
Photo by Ferdinando Pisani
Global Forum for Health Research, Havana, Cuba

The Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine (FAIM) attended the Global Forum for Health Research that was held in Havana, Cuba from the 16th to the 20th of November, 2009. This international event was the opportunity to generate a dialogue and a debate among the many diverse stakeholders involved in health research.

The theme of the summit was innovation, which encompasses the entire process from the generation of new ideas to the transformation and implementation of useful things and processes. Special focus was given on health equity and identifying policies and strategies necessary to improve the global and national environments for innovation in the health sector.

Innovation was taken in its ample definition; it may involve new products, services, methods, manufacturing processes, management structures or policies. Social innovation involves new ways to manage people, processes and information, while technological innovation involves material invention. Technological and social aspects of innovation are intertwined and often complementary. The main interest of many officials was how to get more bang for the buck: not necessarily more money for health research but more health for the money.

This event was also an opportunity for the Cubans to show off their great accomplishments in public health and in health research. The Cuban health system is tiered in such a way that every single individual has access to the full spectrum of medical assistance. The first level is covered by general practitioners or family doctors, which actually live within the community they are in charge to monitor. A series of upward referrals to more and more specialized institutes allow for all health issues to be properly dealt with.

Cuba has also a series of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) clinics in every single municipality. Either through the patient's own initiative or through the referral by the family practitioner, the patient can access these clinics that are staffed with highly trained medical doctors.

Cuba lives a David and Goliath Syndrome with its giant neighbor that determines all aspects of life there. Its lack of material progress is blamed on the economic embargo, which nonetheless has been a catalyst for one of the planet's most fascinating human experiments. Unlike any other country (albeit the Scandinavian ones) Cuba is adamant in living its principle of universal solidarity, which is exemplified in its healthcare system.

Necessity has spurred it to search for effective methods that do not use costly resources. CAM became the answer, which was also a strategic safeguard from depending entirely on the dictates of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Currently, Cuba has more than 10,000 foreigners studying medicine in its various universities. It has medical missions in more than twenty five countries, with more than 20,000 physicians in Venezuela alone. Through an oil-for-health trade agreement, Cuban doctors are replicating their system in far off villages that had never before seen a physician. Cuba also runs whole medical faculties in various countries, educating in places where qualified personnel do not want to go, as in certain areas of South Africa.

The Cuban scientific bio-medical research sector is a strategic resource that gathers more than 10,000 researchers in more than 50 research institutes. Situated in the eastern part of Havana, this high tech sector is the pride of the island and proves that remarkable progress in this area can be accomplished even in countries with limited material resources.

In fact, one of the conclusions of the Global Forum was that health research is not a prerogative of the First World anymore. Low-income countries have also delved into this field doing research that is most pertinent to their necessities. And middle-income countries have now also become promoters and are financing important scientific research.

The Global Forum was an opportunity for FAIM to understand a world of high-level policymakers and the language spoken there. In fact, FAIM has understood that proponents of alternative and integrative medicine must start speaking the language of high-level diplomacy and international organizations. While the great majority of the topics discussed centered around how to give more health using conventional medicine, all participants interviewed by FAIM admitted to using CAM for their personal and family needs.

One of the big challenges for FAIM is to find ways to bring alternative and integrative medicine to the table of policymakers and into the world agenda.

The official website for the Global Forum for Health Research is: The site hosts a series of resources including the full program, bios and videos of the key speakers.