In 2012, Kunle Ekunkonye, a software engineer from Miami, began filming a documentary about the free medical school in Cuba.
That’s right. There is a free medical school in Cuba, and you can go there.
Ekunkonye’s brother did. He found out about the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) through their father, who had been watching an Australian TV show that mentioned the school.
While his brother studied medicine, Ekunkonye visited him twice a year. Impressed with the country’s healthcare system and its focus on the doctor-patient relationship rather than technology, he began filming.
Ekunkonye holds a B.S. in computer science and an M.B.A. from Florida International University—but film? “I had no crew, no budget, no experience,” he says. “It was my first time taking on such an ambitious project.” He learned the post-production process as he went along.
Community Doctors—a Documentary
Ekunkonye’s goal is to raise awareness not only about ELAM but also about Cuba’s healthcare system.
Rafael Montalvo, an ELAM graduate and now a practicing physician in California, recommends it highly. A former mechanical engineer and assistant student activities director in the CUNY system, he learned about the program through his boss.“He didn’t know if it was legit,” says Montalvo, “but he knew of my interest in med school and said I should check it out.”
Although Montalvo is Puerto Rican, he didn’t speak Spanish when he began the program. Was he intimidated? “If anything, I was intrigued. I knew I had the wherewithal in the sciences. If anything would hold me back it would be the language,” he says.
Montalvo said it was sink or swim—and he was learning Spanish on the university level, not just conversational Spanish. He embraced the challenge. “In three months, I was pretty sharp,” he says. He completed the six-year medical program, which consisted of two years of coursework in the core sciences and four years of clinical practice, and is now fluent in Spanish.
Students live on a former military base, “like medical military,” says Montalvo. Cafeteria meals were free, as were uniforms.
What was his debt coming out of medical school? “I had no debt at all,” Montalvo told me. “It was completely free.”
Doctors who complete the ELAM program are urged to practice in underserved communities.
To practice in the U.S., Montalvo had to complete a three-year residency. “In the U.S., you need to be certified and take all three boards. From a legal standpoint, you need some entity confirming that you’ve been properly trained in the American medical system.”
Another Way to Do Healthcare
Ekunkonye recognized that “something great was coming out of Cuba. Just because we have differing ideologies doesn’t mean we can’t work together,” he says.
Healthcare outcomes in Cuba are on par with those in the U.S., yet Cuba makes use of much less technology, seeing it as a tool and not as essential to health. “Their focus is on prevention,” Ekunkonye says.
He also notes that doctors are available in every community. “Visiting, I discovered another side to the Cuban story,” Ekunkonye says. “I saw that we can relate to our Cuban neighbors as human beings. It made me think about how we treat people, how we think about people, and how we can cooperate with other people in the world.”
To view the film in its entirety, go here.