Within the context of the Fitur 2023 International Tourism Fair, Mr. Jose Carlos de Santiago, editor and CEO of Excelencias magazine, talked to Dr. Osvaldo Hector Ardisana, Commercial Specialist in International Medical Services at the Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos S.A., who, after having worked for almost a decade as a comprehensive general doctor, has been working in the health tourism industry for more than 20 years.
Is your work here in the field of tourism or health promotion?
Our company has distinctive characteristics. We say that it is very complex to be a "salesman" of health tourism; to give a very simple example, you have a person with a lot of experience in the tourism sector, and you teach him the attributes of nature or sun and beach, and selling rooms in tourist destinations is relatively simple, without underestimating the work of anyone, but selling health tourism requires knowledge of medicine.
So it is easier to train a doctor in the knowledge of the commercial area, of marketing, than the other way around, than to employ a person who has a lot of skills in commercial techniques but does not master the medical aspects.
Tell us about the possibilities for a citizen from any country in the world to get to Cuba, what possibilities does he/she have to contact them, how can he/she do it?
Allow me, albeit very briefly, to recapitulate a little. Cuba entered health tourism almost by chance; during the 60s and 70s of the last century there were many immigrants or temporary residents in Cuba, especially from Latin American countries, at a time when there were dictatorships in those nations; They lived on the island and, therefore, enjoyed the benefits of the Cuban health system, as resident citizens, and later, in the 90's, when the democratic era began in the region, they returned to their respective countries, but they were left with the memory of what was in Cuba, and many times, when they needed to be treated, they came looking for a solution.
So we did not have the experience of how to market those services, but we told them to come, that we would treat them free of charge. And those patients did not accept that condition, they said it was not fair, that they had the possibility of paying for them and that we needed it because the Cuban health system was supported by that money.
When the tourist boom to Cuba began in the 1990s, many Canadian and European citizens began to arrive and began to discover that this destination was much more than sun, beach, culture, rum or music, but that there was also a possibility of medical care that had some options.
All this led us to start conceiving and designing a health tourism product, which led us to create internal structures in hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices, hotels, as well as commercial structures. We began to design strategies to act through agencies working abroad that had contracts with us, through Cuban embassies, through friendship groups with Cuba, that is to say, through a number of people who made our services known internationally.
Today we are in the era of technologies, Internet platforms, specialized magazines in paper or digital format, and there are many ways of getting to know Cuba, but, undoubtedly, we have to do our part to explain this product, which is very specific.
When a person travels to Cuba and is going to be treated for any illness, if he or she goes with a family member, how will the Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos take care of him or her?
That is one of our products, what we call "patient care": a person whose reason for traveling is for medical treatment. In that case, we generally have already organized a package of airport pick-up, transfer to the medical institution where he/she will be treated, medical services, accommodation, meals, everything is included in the program; if the person is traveling with a companion, we can also provide that service. Sometimes they stay in the same hospital that has the conditions to receive them or others, we can put them up in a nearby hotel that allows them to be present in the follow-up of their family member's condition, at the same time they can enjoy some options of visits to places of interest, according to their possibilities.
That is one of the alternatives because, also, as we are receiving millions of conventional tourists every year, we have a tourist assistance network: a person who did not come to Cuba for health tourism, but for a vacation, for an event or any other purpose, and is staying in one of the many tourist resorts on the island, but there he/she has an accident or gets sick unexpectedly. For those cases, in all those poles there are assistance centers, depending on the number of rooms in that destination; sometimes there are small hospitals, there are medical offices in the hotels, ambulance services. In other words, there is a whole network created to assist visitors.
When a patient or tourist goes for medical care and does not need to be hospitalized because his ailments do not require it, can he stay in a hotel, and even the doctor can visit him?
Indeed, many of our programs are ambulatory, for example, skin diseases, medical check-ups, dental care or similar, which do not require the patient to be hospitalized. He stays in a hotel that he may have booked himself through a conventional travel agency, or we offer him some options.
In surgical cases, which do require hospitalization for the necessary time, the convalescence can be done in one of our institutions or in a hotel.
When a person wants to lose weight, which may or may not require surgery, can he/she stay in a non-hospital institution?
Of course they can. That is one of the programs that we get a lot of requests for, especially from Canada and some places in Europe, that there are bariatric surgery programs to reduce stomach and lose weight and others that work through dieting techniques, exercises, holistic and natural medicine, which are done in an out-of-hospital environment.
There are institutions that have that, because it is very difficult to make a weight reduction program in an all-inclusive with a buffet table full of pastries and sweets; they are institutions conceived as a kind of health hotel, in which, in addition to the accommodation conditions, there is a mixed staff of doctors, specialists in physical medicine and rehabilitation, in addition to a gym, spa, etc., which facilitate this process.
The Cuban medical system has other options, such as mental health or dependency, do you have mental health institutions?
Yes, the treatment program for drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions has been very well structured in Cuba for many years; in fact, it is one of our strengths. Cuba is a country that although we cannot say that it is one hundred percent drug-free, because obviously it is not, it does have a minimum level of consumption and distribution, compared to the rest of the world, that is, it is a very propitious scenario where we can develop, in specialized institutions, a program whose strength is the multifactor relationship: psychiatry and mental health specialists with many years of experience, specialized in the treatment of addictions, work there.
Likewise, there are professionals of traditional natural medicine, physiatrists, specialized nurses, in other words, a comprehensive team that treats the patient jointly in a natural environment, with all the benefits of the climate, which is also drug-free; with a commitment, which is a very important thing, and great interaction between the therapeutic team and the individual, which I am not saying does not exist in other clinics, but in ours it is very significant, which makes the Cuban program very strong.
To what extent is the health tourism modality really known in the tourism sector?
In Cuba it is known; as you can see, we are in a tourism fair in perfect interaction with the hotel chains. It is true that the distribution channels and the commercial methodology are not the same. If you are a person who is sick and is looking for a treatment option, you don't go to an airline or a travel agency or a tour operator to look for a solution, you generally go to specialized sites of this modality. But since Cuba's health is quite well known and has a reputation that I would say is well-earned in the international sphere, people get interested and start looking... that is why we are very connected with embassies and friendship and solidarity groups with Cuba and a series of people who, even without any profit motive, lead potential clients, in this case patients, to find our services.
However, we are not satisfied, we want to make ourselves much better known. Let me explain: another branch we work with is that of specialists working abroad; there is a large number of Cuban doctors in different countries, mainly in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, but more and more every day in Europe and Asia. A very recent example was the World Cup in Qatar, a hospital that provided a very important backup service is almost one hundred percent operated by Cubans, a hospital that has been working for a long time and that was conceived that way, because the know-how is from Cuba. That, in turn, becomes a multiplier because when a person is treated there by a Cuban specialist and is satisfied, it becomes a kind of bridge to us. Likewise, when there is a treatment that is only available in Cuba - we have a line of exclusive products only available in the country - they can guide them to us.
Regarding vaccines against cancer...
There are some Cuban vaccines against lung cancer, which are therapeutic vaccines, not preventive, that is to say, it is not a vaccine to avoid cancer, but it is administered when you are unfortunately already ill and are receiving treatment. Cuban vaccines are not one hundred percent exclusive because there are other similar vaccines in other countries, but they are developed countries vaccines. Not many countries can be proud of having a vaccine of this type. Besides, Cuban vaccines compete with the best ones in terms of results and statistics, and our country already has three of them, which are used for lung cancer and other head and neck tumors. It is a very interesting product that Cuba has and that can be applied.
Another important treatment is the one we call complex diabetic foot ulcers, which is a disease of civilization, so to speak, for which the Heberprot-P medicine was developed, created entirely by the Cuban genetic industry and biotechnology, which heals complex ulcers that have been chronic, which have not healed for months or even years, and also prevents amputation. There is a somewhat commercial slogan that I don't like to use, but I end up saying it, that the feet that are amputated today in Milan or Paris are saved in Havana because there is a treatment that prevents that outcome and heals very complex ulcers in a very short time.
What about breast cancer serums?
On the subject of cancer, Cuba is working intensively and there are drugs that are in different phases of their implementation protocols; those for lung, head and neck cancer are more than proven and have been exploited for years; there are people who have been using them for more than 10 years, and they have a longer life. This is a trend that is being followed in the world internationally: turning cancer into a chronic disease, that is to say, we cannot say that it is cured, but it is like diabetes or hypertension, you keep the disease under control. Much progress has also been made in skin and pancreatic cancer; in breast cancer there is a research protocol that is not yet in the experimental phase.
There are other Cuban products. Something more simple, historical, but still very effective is the treatment of skin diseases, such as vitiligo and psoriasis, with medicines derived from human placenta. This is also very close to tourism, since it is a very simple, outpatient treatment, without any side effects, without much complexity, which you can combine: conventional tourism, a visit to Havana, getting to know its beauties and goodness, and at the same time attending the consultations, starting the treatment and buying your medicine and taking it back to your country.
I understand that vitiligo requires a double treatment, one dermatological, skin treatment, and the other is psychological, do you apply both?
Of course, within the consultations for vitiligo and psoriasis the psychological factor is very important. We always try that the patient is recognized in a comprehensive way, with a psychiatrist or a psychologist specialized in these diseases, who recommend changes in lifestyle, something that is very important.
ON THE EXPERIENCE OF COMERCIALIZADORA DE SERVICIOS MÉDICOS CUBANOS AT FITUR 2023
On this topic, Excelencias interviews Laura Dominguez Fernandez, communications specialist at the Cuban Medical Services Marketing Company.
Could you tell us about your experience at Fitur in Madrid?
The Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos arrived at Fitur 2023 with the representation of two staff members, a commercial specialist and a communications specialist, to promote all those unique services that are combined with unique products, and others, such as wellness and quality of life, as well as Cuba's commitment to foreign investment in the health sector. In this fair we strengthen our links with agencies and tour operators, and we contact new ones interested in the operation of this tourist modality. That is the essence of why we are at Fitur. In addition, from the communication point of view, we have contacted specialized magazines, media, some with whom we already had contracts and others, to open new possibilities.
In the area of tourism, what results have you had, have you had many interviews, have many people come to see you?
Yes, we have had several people interested in learning about health tourism. And we've had the advantage of being linked to hoteliers, which facilitates good communication to put together packages that combine the offer of Cuban attractions with the possibilities offered by health tourism.
Taken from Excelencias Cuba