Cuban healthcare exhibition reveals gold mine for imaging industry

March 1, 2000

Cuba is an untapped market for radiology equipment vendors, especially those specializing in ultrasound, according to several companies attending the U.S. Healthcare Exhibition in Havana in January. The 97 companies at the exhibition—including

Cuba is an untapped market for radiology equipment vendors, especially those specializing in ultrasound, according to several companies attending the U.S. Healthcare Exhibition in Havana in January. The 97 companies at the exhibition—including Kodak, Archer Daniels Midland, Hewlett-Packard, 3M, Siemens, and Pfizer—will use relationships established at the meeting to build a future market estimated at well over $50 million annually.

Organized in cooperation with the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the Cuban Ministry of Health, the exhibition is a first step in easing sanctions and expediting the licensing process to allow import of U.S. healthcare products into Cuba. It was the first such event officially sanctioned by both the U.S. and Cuban governments since 1959.

Cuba is often called the only country in the world where a patient can have an expertly performed heart transplant free of charge but die the following week of an infection due to lack of antibiotics. With 65,000 physicians in 14 provinces, Cuba abounds in medical expertise, but supply shortages make it impossible for hospitals to meet basic healthcare demands.

Radiology is a key part of the healthcare system in Cuba, with 2500 radiologists practicing in the country. The specialty’s influence is particularly strong in radiation oncology and women’s health. Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer among Cuban women, second only to heart disease as a cause of death. The government has designated early detection as a priority, encouraging stronger initiatives from the Cuban National Cancer Control Program.

Sixteen mobile mammography units provide screening in remote areas of the country, according to the Cuban Ministry of Health. But the lack of x-ray film and modern equipment preclude a consistent screening program, and the shortage of drugs and radiologic equipment makes it difficult to treat the growing number of breast cancer cases. A breast health summit was proposed last fall to address these issues, but details have not been finalized.

While all imaging modalities are used in Cuba, ultrasound remains crucial to radiology practice. Color Doppler is used more for cardiac imaging in Cuba than anywhere else in the world, according to Mauricio Valero, Latin American sales manager for Siemens Ultrasound.

“We need to change the thinking,” Valero said. “Establishing color Doppler for day-to-day standard procedures for any application is a goal.”

With limited hospital funds available for equipment acquisition, used imaging equipment would seem a viable alternative. Ultrasound equipment in particular is in great demand, according to Jeff Weiss, president of Atlantis International, a used equipment vendor based in New York City.

“Cubans are very resourceful,” Weiss said. “With vehicles, equipment, or appliances, if they don’t have access to the parts, they will create them themselves.”

Whenever the state allocates resources for medical equipment, Cuban physicians often purchase a single new product rather than investigating the option of used and refurbished equipment.

“They don’t understand their options when it comes to buying used equipment,” Weiss said. “It’s our job to educate them.”

Although the infrastructure to support Internet access in Cuba falls short of the worldwide standard, it was bolstered by a 1998 grant from the United Nations development program to upgrade healthcare technology. Implementation of the National Network of Telemedicine is under way and will initially connect hospitals in five Cuban provinces. The system will also be used as a virtual university to provide general medical correspondence courses to remote locations. The Infomed network, developed by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health in 1992, was the first system to offer nationwide health information coverage. It will be used to support the launch and growth of the NNT.

Based on the potential demonstrated by the first meeting, plans for a second U.S. Healthcare Exhibition in April 2001 have been announced.

One positive effect of the meeting is that it demonstrated the commitment of U.S. companies to Cuba, according to Valero. “We are here to show we are serious about providing healthcare solutions for them.”