Background: Cuba has extended its medical cooperation to Pacific Island Countries (PICs) by supplying doctors to boost service delivery and offering scholarships for Pacific Islanders to study medicine in Cuba. Given the small populations of PICs, the Cuban engagement could prove particularly significant for health systems development in the region. This paper reviews the magnitude and form of Cuban medical cooperation in the Pacific and analyses its implications for health policy, human resource capacity and overall development assistance for health in the region.
Methods: We reviewed both published and grey literature on health workforce in the Pacific including health workforce plans and human resource policy documents. Further information was gathered through discussions with key stakeholders involved in health workforce development in the region.
Results: Cuba formalised its relationship with PICs in September 2008 following the first Cuba-Pacific Islands ministerial meeting. Some 33 Cuban health personnel work in Pacific Island Countries and 177 Pacific island students are studying medicine in Cuba in 2010 with the most extensive engagement in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The cost of the Cuban medical cooperation to PICs comes in the form of countries providing benefits and paying allowances to in-country Cuban health workers and return airfares for their students in Cuba. This has been seen by some PICs as a cheaper alternative to training doctors in other countries.
Conclusions: The Cuban engagement with PICs, while smaller than engagement with other countries, presents several opportunities and challenges for health system strengthening in the region. In particular, it allows PICs to increase their health workforce numbers at relatively low cost and extends delivery of health services to remote areas. A key challenge is that with the potential increase in the number of medical doctors, once the local students return from Cuba, some PICs may face substantial rises in salary expenditure which could significantly strain already stretched government budgets. Finally, the Cuban engagement in the Pacific has implications for the wider geo-political and health sector support environment as the relatively few major bilateral donors, notably Australia (through AusAID) and New Zealand (through NZAID), and multilaterals such as the World Bank will need to accommodate an additional player with whom existing links are limited.